Once upon a time, as all good fairy tales begin, two children named Hansel and Gretel came upon a clearing in a dark forest and discovered a house made of gingerbread. Covered in colorful candies and scenting the air with ginger, cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg, the charming cottage was an irresistible feast for the senses.
“Hansel reached up and broke off a little of the roof to see how he liked it, and Gretel went up to a window and nibbled on it. All at once a voice called from inside:
‘Nibble, nibble, munch, munch.
Who is gnawing on my house?’”
While the original concept of gingerbread houses likely emerged in Germany during the 16th century, the popularity of the cookie-walled confection reached new heights after the Brothers Grimm published their widely read fable Hansel and Gretel in 1812. Today, this whimsical treat continues to entice children worldwide, minus the wicked witches.
One Columbia family, the Lemons, has long embraced the art of making gingerbread houses as an ongoing and memorable part of their Christmas tradition. “I’ve always loved gingerbread houses,” says Lynn Lemon.
Lynn explains that even though her father’s family origins are German (her maiden name is Snitzer, originally spelled Schneitzer), she did not grow up making gingerbread houses as a child. Instead, the tradition entered her family life about 33 years ago.
“When my oldest two sons were very young, they came home from preschool one day with these little ‘gingerbread houses’ they had made with graham crackers,” says Lynn. “I thought they were so cute.”
Lynn took her sons’ “gingerbread houses” and placed them alongside a gingerbread house she had decorated from a store-bought kit to create a little village as the centerpiece of their family’s Christmas dinner table.
“Every year after that for about 10 years, I’d invite this whole group of neighborhood kids to our house to make graham cracker houses with my boys,” says Lynn. “I would put piles of candy and icing out for them and say, ‘I don’t care how much candy you use. Whatever you make, you can take home with you. The only thing I ask is that you leave the houses with me until after Christmas dinner so I can decorate my table with them.’”
Over time, this sweet Christmas tradition changed and shifted with the accompanying phases of life. The Lemon family added a third son and eventually moved into a new neighborhood with new friends and new activities. Although those little candy-covered graham cracker houses no longer adorned her table, Lynn’s personal creative efforts evolved from making gingerbread houses from a kit to baking, building, and decorating her annual gingerbread house from scratch, with recipes and instructions from The Gingerbread Book by Steven Stellingwerf.
When life delivered a cherished new role for Lynn as a grandmother to Lilly, who is now 16 years old, the Lemons’ annual gingerbread tradition took on yet another new dimension. It became a special bonding, learning, and growing experience for both Lynn and Lilly to share.
“She was 3 the first Christmas she helped me decorate the gingerbread house. That year, I’d baked and built my house, but I didn’t decorate it,” Lynn says. “Instead, I saved the decorating for Lilly and me to do together. I’ve still got the pictures of Lilly with that gingerbread house, and she’s just this tiny little thing. The house had a piece of candy stuck over here and a piece of candy stuck over there, but from that time on, making the gingerbread house became something she and I did together every Christmas.”
As Lilly grew, so, too, did her participation in this treasured activity with her grandmother. “Each year, I’ve slowly taught Lilly more and more about the process. At first, she just helped me decorate, but now she helps me mix the batter, roll it out, cut the patterns, and bake it,” says Lynn. “And since we take a picture of our gingerbread house every year, I can actually see the progression of how Lilly has grown and developed over time.”
As early as November, Lynn and Lilly are already thinking about gingerbread. “Usually around Thanksgiving, I pull out The Gingerbread Book, and Lilly and I sit down together to go through the book and decide which pattern we want to make,” says Lynn.
The fun of choosing and dreaming about the house is soon followed by a two-week process of actually creating the house. “We’ll take a day and mix up the batter, and then there’s another day when we roll it out and cut the pattern out and bake it,” says Lynn. “The thing about gingerbread is that it has to be very dry and very hard in order to support the structure. We have to bake all of the pieces and then let them sit for several days until the moisture is gone and the pieces are stale and hard.”
While they wait for their gingerbread to dry out, the next step is thinking about candy. “I always have an assortment of candies and things on hand from the year before, and I also keep an eye out all year long for specialty pieces to add to our collection,” says Lynn. “So we pull out all of the candies and items we already have and then just talk and plan. After that, we usually take a day to go candy shopping to fill in anything we’re missing.”
When it comes to decorating the gingerbread houses, every year brings new levels of creativity for Lynn and Lilly. “The items we use vary from year to year,” says Lynn. “I look for green and red candies, holiday-themed candy such as Christmas tree gummies or Christmas tree marshmallows. I’ve used chocolate-covered pretzels as columns on a front porch. I’ve used ‘rocky road’ chocolates for a chimney. I’ve used jelly beans, cinnamon Red Hots, candy canes, peppermints, a set of foil-covered Santa and reindeer chocolates, and even a bag of white cotton candy ‘snow’ for the yard.”
In addition to using candy for decoration, Lynn and Lilly also use melted candy to make the windows. “One of the parts that we love to add to our gingerbread houses is stained-glass windows,” Lynn says. “After I’ve cut out the windows, I go back the next day with a variety of broken Jolly Rancher candies and fill up the window spaces. Then I put the gingerbread back into the oven and melt the candy, which adheres to the sides of the window frames. When it comes out of the oven, the windows have this beautiful, colorful stained-glass look.”
The next step in the process is putting all of the gingerbread pieces together. The “mortar” for the gingerbread house is royal icing, which Lynn says gets as hard as cement. In the past few years, she has also started using quilting pins, which are longer than average sewing pins, to hold the pieces together until the icing hardens.
Once the construction of the house is complete, it is time to decorate. “We almost always put a layer of icing on the roof and then just cover it with candy. It takes us a couple of days to fully decorate the entire house, but then we’re done!” says Lynn. “And every year after we finish, Lilly and I take a picture — usually with icing in our hair and looking a mess, but we always take that picture.”
Giggling at the memory, Lynn says, “One year I didn’t wait long enough for the gingerbread to dry. It was the biggest gingerbread house we had ever made — this thing was huge! As we put the last piece of candy on the roof, the whole thing totally collapsed. We just looked at each other and started laughing. I said to Lilly, ‘I don’t care — we are still getting a picture with this house because we are not making another one!’”
The gingerbread house Lynn and Lilly made last Christmas was a replica of the Lemon family home. “Since we were moving after living in that house for almost 21 years, I made a pattern of our home to create it as a gingerbread house,” says Lynn. “I designed the pattern, and, of course, it was somewhat modified and simplified to make it with gingerbread — but the whole process was kind of bittersweet.”
Even more meaningful than the gingerbread houses they have built are the beautiful and lasting memories this grandmother and granddaughter duo have made over the years.
As she considers the legacy of their ongoing and evolving Christmas tradition, Lynn says, “Lilly and I are close. We’ve had a lot of time together. And what Lilly recognizes is that making these gingerbread houses together every year is just as important to me as it is to her. A couple of years ago, I said to Lilly, ‘You’re going to college in a couple of years. What are we going to do about the gingerbread house?’ And she said, ‘We’re going to make the gingerbread house when I come home from school.’
“And then I said, ‘What about when I’m old and ancient and I can’t make the gingerbread house anymore?’
“She said to me, ‘Well, you’ll just sit there and watch me make it.’ Then she said, ‘You know you’re going to have to teach my children how to make this gingerbread house.’”
Gingerbread for Houses
5 cups flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cloves
1 teaspoon nutmeg
2 teaspoons cinnamon
2 teaspoons ginger
1 cup shortening
1 cup sugar
1¼ cups molasses
2 eggs, beaten
Preheat oven to 350 F. Blend the dry ingredients together. In a large saucepan, melt the shortening. Cool slightly. Add sugar, molasses, and eggs. Mix well. Add dry ingredients and mix well.
Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper before baking to help the gingerbread house bake evenly and for easy removal. Roll the gingerbread dough to a thickness of ¼ inch. Place paper patterns onto the rolled-out dough. With a straight-edged sharp knife, cut around each of the pieces. Bake 10 to 15 minutes. Edges should be light brown.
After removing from the oven, place patterns on top of the gingerbread again and trim shapes, cutting edges with a straight-edged sharp knife. Once baked and trimmed, let the gingerbread cool completely at room temperature. It is best to let the gingerbread sit out for several days to become a little stale and help it stay sturdy. If the gingerbread pieces soften because of high humidity, re-crisp them for a few minutes in the oven and let them cool before assembling.