All It Takes Is a Gingerbread House to Get in the Holiday Spirit

A spontaneous challenge turned into a meaningful Christmas tradition for this family.

making gingerbread houses

K Martinko

I am a self-taught maker of gingerbread houses. It wasn't something I ever did growing up. In fact, gingerbread houses struck me as an awful lot of work for minimal return, a finicky baking project that would eat up time I could spend doing something more productive.

But then, five years ago, I saw a sign at the library announcing a gingerbread house contest. I went home and told my kids and we made a house from scratch. It took all day and we were covered in icing from head to toe, but I was blown away by the final product. It was so satisfying to see an entire little house, decorated outrageously with colorful candy, that had sprung into being using nothing more than the ingredients in my pantry. I delivered the house to the library, where it won first place in the family category, and we got a generous $100 in gift certificates to local businesses. 

Every year since then, my kids and I have submitted a gingerbread house to the contest, and every year we've won the family category. Our houses are not stunning or ornate; the only thing that sets them apart is the fact that I make the gingerbread from scratch. Everyone else uses store-bought kits, which makes the houses appear uniform. Ours, by contrast, is quirkily misshapen and leans perilously; my husband refers to it jokingly as "the slanty shanty." 

making a gingerbread house with my kid
The first ever gingerbread house we made, back in 2015.

K Martinko

Following the judging and obligatory public display at the library until after the Santa Claus Parade, the gingerbread house comes home and sits in a place of prominence until, slowly but surely, its candy is raided by sneaky fingers and the gingerbread becomes so stale that it crumbles. It's a sad shell of its former glory by the time I tip it into the compost bin, but the memory of the satisfaction it offered remains fresh.

This year there was no contest, but we made gingerbread houses nonetheless. And in case you're interested in doing it yourself, here's how it works in my household. I use a random recipe off the Internet (this year it was from the Food Network and turned out so well that I'll be bookmarking it for future use). Making gingerbread from scratch is not hard, so don't let the thought intimidate you. It's no more work than rolling out cookie dough. 

gingerbread components
Gingerbread pre-fab pieces.

K Martinko

While it chills in the fridge, I cut templates out of an old cereal box and used these to pre-cut the dough in the shapes I need. These bake and cool quickly, then are assembled into a house shape using royal icing, a gluey cement of icing sugar and egg whites. This assembly is the hardest part of the project and usually requires a few cans of food to prop up it up until the icing sets. (I'm sure professional bakers don't resort to black bean buttresses, but it works for me.)

Then the little decorators descend, icing bags and candy bowls at the ready, some of it left over from Halloween. Because there was no contest this year, I relinquished all oversight and let them do whatever they wanted for decoration.

This simple tradition has become one of the highlights of the Christmas season for my family. We sometimes invite friends to join, some of whom make their own gingerbread in advance and bring along extra candy. (This year, of course, we stuck within our social bubble and the legal limit for indoor gatherings for our region.) We listen to Christmas music for the first time in the season and the old arguments resume, me wanting Michael Bublé and my husband preferring A Charlie Brown Christmas. The adults drink mimosas and sneak handfuls of candy and extra gingerbread cookies while the kids call out for icing refills and decorating advice and occasional structural assistance.

If you haven't made a gingerbread house before, I highly recommend you give it a try. All you need is time, and time is exactly what we have in abundance this year. (The dough can be made and baked in advance if you need a head start.) What better way to use that time than constructing something fabulous with your kids?

What I hope, too, is that this tradition will give my kids a way to make it feel like Christmas, no matter where they go in life. To paraphrase a former comments moderator for Treehugger, these little traditions "allow them to navigate the world as young adults. They may not be home for Christmas, but they know how to make it feel like Christmas for themselves." My hope is that they'll take gingerbread houses wherever they go in life, and always think of home.