Years later, those annual brunches came to an end, but the gingerbread house tradition did not. By the time I was in high school, my mother grew tired of this tradition, but I simply would not let it stop. Some years the houses were rather small, more like a one-bedroom cottage, but a year never went by without one. I made sure of that even after I moved out and got married, I would drive over to my parents' house on December 23rd to help decorate the house. During those years, we couldn't simply Google templates or recipes, and those box kits were unheard of, so we managed with our own skills in geometry, baking, and art. For four Christmases, we lived 250 miles from home, so I couldn't help decorate those houses; however, by that time, my mom gave up on the idea of quitting this tradition, and each Christmas afternoon, once we arrived in town, I would quickly run to the kitchen to inspect her handiwork. She never let me down.
Four Christmases ago, after moving back to my hometown, I offered to take over the task. Mom all too happily past on the spatula and flour! The first year, my goal was simply to build a house that wouldn't collapse. You see, when my mom built the houses, she would construct a cardboard frame and use Royal icing to adhere the gingerbread sheets to the frame. It made eating the cake a challenge as we had to pry off bits from the wall, and if you've ever used Royal icing, you know that stuff dries like glue. She tried making houses without the frame twice, once with success and another, total failure. Within seconds of placing the finished house on the kitchen table, we watched in astonishment as it collapsed.
With the resolve to build as nice a house as my mom's earlier years but without a frame, I built this structure with great success:
Cute, right? I was proud of it, and my boys had fun decorating it with me. I was a self-taught gingerbread house architect and was ready for bigger and better plans.
Growing up, I had always dreamed of building a gingerbread house that modeled my parents Colonial home. It was too arduous a task for my mother, but despite having a five-month-old baby and three little boys at home, I was up for the task the following Christmas. I bought extra boxes of that same Betty Crocker gingerbread mix we've used for years, and set out to construct my masterpiece. I began with the design, deciding it would really be one large house with two smaller partial houses on each side.
I spent one evening baking all the sheets of gingerbread and let them cool overnight. Then, using Royal icing, I started gluing the walls together. As you can see from the picture, I used pantry items to help support the walls as the icing hardened. Meanwhile, I began creating windows with icing and used pieces of Hershey bars as the shutters. Now, my parents' house actually has five windows going across on the second floor and six windows on the first, but I ran out of room.
When it came time for the columns, I searched endlessly for the candy canes I just knew I had bought that week, but I had been shopping with my children, so where those candy canes ended up between the shelf at Kroger and my kitchen will always be a mystery. Thankfully, I had some Twizzlers and settled on those. By this time, I had spend countless hours constructing the house. I sort of wished I had recorded the time, but perhaps it's best I don't know. I was just thankful my baby was such an awesome napper and was happy sitting in her swing a lot that day.
Once the columns and shutters were in place, I invited the boys to decorate... the back. As is custom, I always get to decorate the front of the house, and with all the hours I put into this one, I wasn't going to share that role with anyone! I kept it simple, but after framing the roof with M&Ms to look like Christmas lights (not that my parents have ever hung lights on their roof), I added a few stars and candy canes. That sprawling roof just looked too plain without anything.
Meanwhile, the boys had fun with the back and sides.
They more than made up for the simple front by going a little crazy on the sides.
On Christmas Eve, after attending church, we presented the house to my family at my parents'. They were thrilled and impressed. It's been our favorite house ever, and I have no aspirations to try and outdo it. Since then, I've gone back to the simpler houses though I have vowed that I will never make them from a box kit nor will I ever skip a Christmas. This year is particularly meaningful as it is the first Christmas my mother isn't here to see my festive creation. I'm thankful I took over the tradition before she got cancer and became to ill to make them. I'm also glad I attempted and succeeded back in 2010 in constructing my parents' home since that was my mom's last healthy Christmas with us, and I'm very glad I am able to continue this tradition with my children even though my mom is no longer with us to participate in it.
If you'd like to start this tradition with your family, I hope you'll come back next week when I give you instructions and a template to use. It's one of my favorite family traditions that I will always cherish and would love to see you do the same. And if you aren't fully convinced that this is a tradition worth all the time and effort it takes to make because it will only get thrown away after Christmas, I promise you will be proven wrong. Not only is it a tradition to make this gingerbread house; it's also a tradition to eat it for dessert on Christmas day. Does it taste good? Check out this after picture and see for yourself!