How to Make a Gingerbread House

As a little girl, the two Christmas traditions I remember the most were making a gingerbread house every year with my one grandma, and attending Festival of Trees at the Salt Palace to watch my other grandma’s clogging group perform. Fast forward to 2010 when we moved back to Utah and I started taking my own kids to experience Festival of Trees. I was still just as mesmerized with the gingerbread creations in the Gingerbread Village, so I merged my two favorite Christmas traditions, and a new tradition of making a gingerbread house for the Festival of Trees was born! Here are the houses I’ve made for Festival of Trees over the years (you can click on any photo to enlarge it).

2016: A Charlotte’s Web Christmas

2011: A Charlie Brown Christmas

2012: {Had a newborn, so no house that year}

2013: Rise and Shout!—a BYU-themed gingerbread house

2014: A Very Mickey Christmas

2015: Coca-Cola Wonderland—inspired by my love of Diet Coke

Every penny raised from Festival of Trees supports the children and families at Primary Children’s Medical Center, and so far my houses have raised over $1,700. (The houses are purchased by the highest bidder). Making my gingerbread houses each year is a labor of love, and raising money for Primary Children’s Hospital is extra motivation to try my best on it.

I want to share my tips and tricks for creating gingerbread houses that I’ve learned along the way. When I started, I had no experience making gingerbread houses from scratch—only from kits or graham crackers (which is still fun). So I scoured library books and the internet for gingerbread house ideas and recipes and found the best recipes and tips from the book The Gingerbread Architect by Susan Matheson and Lauren Chattman. This is my gingerbread BIBLE. Before you start your gingerbread creation, read this book! My dear visiting teacher bought it for me after I kept checking it out from the library year after year. (It’s out of print, but you can still buy it used or get it from the library. See below for their recipes, but you’ll still want to consult their book for all the best tips and tricks).  I got the pattern for my last three houses from this book—just enlarged it at a copy store  to 400%.

A few other gingerbread making tips:

  • You need a hefty dose of patience to make a gingerbread house, along with a love of baking (my patience is just seasonal!).
  • If you want to enjoy the gingerbread making process, give yourself two weeks to make it. My best decorating ideas come as I’ve stared at the beast sitting on my counter for several days.
  • Add a little cocoa in frosting to build the gingerbread house. The brown frosting blends in better at the seams (and hides mistakes).
  • Pick your theme early so you can look for supplies throughout the year.
  • I get scrap wood for my base each year from Home Depot, and have them cut it to a 24”x30” piece, which is a good size for a house with landscaping.
  • Don’t be a perfectionist or your gingerbread project will drive you insane! Remember that royal icing and candy can easily hide imperfections.
  • Stock up on parchment paper to bake your gingerbread on, especially when you’re melting crushed Jolly Ranchers or butterscotch candies into the dough.
  • Zurchers or other party supply stores are a good source for color-coordinated candies, especially Sixlets, M&Ms, and gummies. Harmon’s Grocery has an excellent assortment of hard-to-find candies.

I found the following household tools helpful in making gingerbread creations:

  • Q-tips to wipe frosting
  • Tweezers to place Sixlets and other small candy
  • Cheese grater to “trim” gingerbread pieces to fit together
  • Straight pins to hold pieces together while the royal icing dries
  • Canned food to support the pieces while the royal icing dries
  • Pizza cutter to make straight cuts in the dough
  • Toothpicks to unclog frosting tips

Gingerbread Dough Recipe
(from The Gingerbread Architect by Susan Matheson and Lauren Chattman)

1 cup vegetable shortening
1 cup sugar
2 tsps baking powder
2 tsps ground ginger
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
1 tsp ground cinnamon
½ tsp ground cloves
1 cup dark (not light or blackstrap) molasses
2 large eggs
2 tablespoons white vinegar
5 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine shortening and sugar until well combined. Add the baking powder, ginger, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, and cloves and beat until well incorporated. Add the molasses, eggs, and vinegar, and beat until smooth, scraping down the sides of the bowl once or twice as necessary.  Add the flour, one cup at a time, and mix on low until smooth. Scrape the dough onto a sheet of plastic wrap and press into a rough square. Wrap tightly and refrigerate for at least three hours or up to three days. Bake at 375 for 12-14 minutes.

Royal Icing
(from The Gingerbread Architect by Susan Matheson and Lauren Chattman)

3 tablespoons meringue powder
1/2 cup warm water
1 package (16 ounces) confectioners’ sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla

1. Combine the meringue powder and water in a mixing bowl. Beat with an electric mixer on high speed until soft peaks form.

2. Add the confectioners’ sugar and vanilla. Beat until shiny, smooth and increased in volume, 6 to 8 minutes. If too stiff to pipe or spread, add 1 to 2 tablespoons water; beat until the proper consistency is achieved. Use immediately or cover surface of icing with plastic wrap and refrigerate.

This royal icing is the best cement for your gingerbread house. Leftover icing should be refrigerated, the surface covered with plastic wrap. Meringue powder is available at Zurchers, Hobby Lobby, and WalMart.

Happy baking! I’d love to hear your tips for gingerbread houses.

The Christmas Truce

100 years ago, in December 1914, World War I was about 5 months old. In August, the Germans had initially moved rapidly through Luxembourg and Belgium on their way to France. Allied defenses held them at a battle line called The Western Front. By December casualties were high and all both sides could do was hold the line until reinforcements came. They dug trenches and placed barbed wire fences all along the line. The space between them was called “No Man’s Land” and in some places they were only separated by a few yards, close enough to be able to hear the enemy in their trenches.

It was wet and cold and miserable and boring. A British paper said “The bravery of our men, and they are splendidly brave, consists of sitting, often for days and nights, in sodden trenches, with the terrifying and earth-shaking concussions of shells.”
[One soldier wrote:] “You don’t see anything, although the wicked enemy is only 3-400m away , but you hear plenty.” . . .

“Each side could hear each other’s coming and goings, their songs and stresses, a good deal of the time. They got used to it. Here is Second Lieutenant Denis Barnett, serving with the Prince of Wales’ Leinster Regiment, writing a letter home in March the following year: “I had a conversation with a German the other morning. It began just at dawn: ‘Guten morgen, Allyman’, and we soon got going. I told him about the Kaiser, and he said we were all sorts of things I didn’t know.”

As early as December 11, near Armentieres, the Germans threw a big chocolate cake over into the British trench. On it was a note that said, “We propose having a concert tonight as it is our captain’s birthday, and we cordially invite you to attend. Provided you will give us your word of honor as guests and you agree to cease all hostilities between 7:30 and 8:30.” The British thought it was a trap, but they listened to the concert and clapped after each song. One of the Germans yelled over, “Please come mit us into the chorus.” A British soldier replied, “We’d rather die than sing German” and a German quickly replied, “It would kill us if you did.”

The night of December 21 was particularly cold. Sleet fell and the next night was even colder.

Lieutenant Geoffrey Heinekey of the 2nd Queen’s Westminster Rifles was writing to his mother about the recent flurry of activity in the trenches: “A most extraordinary thing happened … some Germans came out and held up their hands and began to take in some of their wounded, and so we ourselves immediately came out of our trenches and began bringing in our wounded also. The Germans then beckoned to us and a lot of us went over and talked to them and they helped us bury our dead. This lasted the whole morning and I talked to several of them and I must say they seemed extraordinarily fine men.”

Another British soldier wrote: “Without a doubt, on the British and German sides of the barbed wire, there are educated men; men who fear God; men who try to live up to the doctrines of their religion , faith, hope and charity.”

As the weather deteriorated, there was a sense that both sides were fighting a common enemy in the weather.

On Christmas Eve, the Germans put up small Christmas trees on the walls of their trenches, lit with candles.
Once darkness had fallen on Christmas Eve, the singing began. At first each side sang their own patriotic songs, trying to drown out the other side with loud singing. Then a group of Germans sang “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary” which was practically a national anthem for the Allies.

“Just a line from the trenches on Christmas Eve,” wrote Major Arthur Bates from the London Rifle Brigade in a pencil scrawl to his wife. “A topping night with not much firing going on & both sides singing – it will be interesting to see what happens tomorrow. My orders to the company are not to start firing unless the Germans do.”

In another area, The Germans sang ‘Stille Nacht’. The London Rifles replied with ‘The First Noel’. The Germans clapped. When the British started ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’, the German side joined in with the Latin words ‘Adeste Fideles’.

At 5am Christmas morning, a rumor started circulating that some of the allies were in No Man’s Land speaking with the Germans.  “Impossible, whose leg are you pulling?” said Edward Roe. “If you don’t believe me, go and see for yourself.” “And there they were, sure enough,” wrote Roe later. “British and German warriors in No Man’s Land, talking to each other and exchanging souvenirs. There is a Christ after all.”

Each side took the opportunity to bury their dead, some of whom had been inaccessible since October. They met in the middle and agreed to terms of an unofficial truce, which included things like:

  • Any action taken by the Artillery of either Army did not break our truce as we had no control over Artillery
  • If either side received an order to fire, they would fire the first three rounds high in the air so as to give the other side time to get under cover.
  • If either side fired a shot with intent to kill, the truce was declared off.

Up and down this section of the Western Front, similar scenes played out. One British soldier helped a German who had lived in England before the war write a postcard to his girlfriend.

A British soldier named Esslemont Adams went across No Man’s Land with the intent of arranging a burial service. As he started to cross, a rabbit ran across No Man’s Land and soldiers from both side chased it. “The Germans caught it, and Adams agreed to a joint funeral service which opened with Psalm 23 – “though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil” – and a joint prayer. After the service, a German colonel took out his cigar case and offered him one. It was an awkward moment for Adams, who was a Presbyterian and didn’t approve of smoking. “May I be allowed not to smoke but to keep this as a souvenir of Christmas here and of meeting you on Christmas Day?” he asked. “Oh yes,” said the German, with a laugh. “But can you give me a souvenir?” Adams took off his cap, dug into the lining to find the copy of the Soldier’s Prayer he always carried (“ Oh God, wash me from all my sins in my Saviour’s Blood, and I shall be whiter than snow”). The colonel put it in his own hat. “I value this because I believe what it says, ” he said. “And when the war is over, I shall take it out and give it as a keepsake to my youngest child.”

Men exchanged gifts. They played football, in some areas with a real ball and in others with whatever they could find. One man ran into a German who had been his barber in England and got a haircut from the enemy in No Man’s Land.

This is Private Ernie Williams of the Cheshire Regiment: “A ball appeared from somewhere, I don’t know where, but it came from their side … They made up some goals and one fellow went in goal and then it was just a general kickabout. I should think there were a couple of hundred taking part. I had a go at the ball. I was pretty good then, at 19, everybody seemed to be enjoying themselves. There was no sort of ill-will between us … There was no referee, no score, no tally at all.”

In another area a soldier recorded: “A German looked over the trench – no shots – our men did the same, and then a few of our men went out and brought the dead in (69) and buried them and the next thing happened a football kicked out of our trenches and Germans and English played football. Night came and still no shots.”

“It was a peculiar mixture of dreamlike exhilaration and celebration. “In the afternoon, I went out and had a chat with ‘our friends the enemy’, ” wrote Sergeant Bernard Brookes of the Queen’s Westminster Rifles in the Frelinghien-Houplines sector.
“Even as I write (dusk),” wrote Sergeant Bob Lobell, “I can scarcely credit what I have seen and done. It has been a wonderful day.”

One soldier summed it up in a letter home: “So there you are; all this talk of hate, all this firing at each other that has raged since the beginning of the war quelled and stayed by the magic of Christmas. Indeed one German said ‘But you are of the same religion as us and today is the day of peace!’ It is really a great triumph for the church. It is a great hope for future peace when two great nations hating each other as foes have seldom hated, one side vowing eternal hate and vengeance and setting their venom to music, should on Christmas day and for all that the word implies, lay down their arms, exchange smokes and wish each other happiness.” –

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.” – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

All quotes are from Boyle, David: Peace on Earth: The Christmas Truce of 1914 and