Gingerbread Houses, a Sweet Tradition with Deep Meaning

In 1969 I had my first trip to the Nut Tree, Vacaville’s legendary road stop on Interstate I-80.

As a 12-year-old, I was stunned by the epiphany that art could be a cookie, and a cookie could be art. The Nut Tree’s large cut-out cookies depicted everything from exquisite butterflies and flowers to animals with intricate colored frosting. They were individually packaged in cellophane, and set my young mind dancing with inspiration. I was smitten!

I began collecting cookie cutters, and soon earned a reputation for making artistic cut-out cookies. Sometimes, people would comment that my cookies were too pretty to eat, or question the lengthy amount of time making something that would be consumed, a mere memory.

I used a recipe passed down from Mrs. Rathbun, a teacher my sister knew. My pleasure of cookies-as-art grew, while raising my three children, with shapes for all seasons and occasions, from Christmas to the Fourth of July.

When my children were toddlers, I continued shaped cookies, and added gingerbread houses: graham crackers glued to little milk cartons. These humble creations were fun for the kids, charming decorations on a mantle. Later, I volunteered in my kid’s schools, teaching gingerbread house-making in their classes. As with other art projects, I saw how delighted the kids were, especially those who’d never assembled a house of candy, in the simple joy of creating something all their own. It’s virtually impossible to make an ugly gingerbread house: snowy white frosting, colorful gumdrops and Tic-tac roof tiles rarely fail to please.

Over the years, as my kids grew, the gingerbread house-making tradition matured: homemade slabs of gingerbread replaced the remedial lowly graham crackers. Each Christmas season, my kids and I would spend hours constructing elaborate gingerbread house villages, proudly displayed on mantle or sideboard with white lights and miniature snowpeople. It always seemed a shame, as the holiday season ended, so too, the gingerbread houses, either to eating, as the children in Hansel and Gretel, or to the trash. One year of particularly fine houses, I wrapped them for the next year. A summer infestation of ants got into the Christmas box and destroyed the village: the cautionary tale that some things can’t be preserved, but enjoyed in its own time.

Kids grew up. Daughter Brooke married, Son Aaron left for college. The youngest, Matt, remained, graduated from Shasta High, and enrolled in the Shasta Builder’s Exchange vocational program. Matt loved the idea of building houses, with a plan of us collaborating as son and mother, building and design of homes. Each week, Matt would exercise his newly acquired building skills, as rapidly as learned, such as dry wall and tile setting, on our house.

That was the year my family hosted a Christmas open house, with friends and family stopping by all day, with food, drinks and a gingerbread-house-making station. Guests, from toddlers to elderly, made their own houses. My kids were amazed at how many people had never made a gingerbread house. Matt, the family comic, made a house with a potato chip roof. He said later that he didn’t want to intimidate guests with his superior building skills.

We could never have imagined that Matt’s potato chip roofed house was the last thing he would build. The next Christmas was spent in an oncology ward at Stanford, where Aaron donated his bone marrow to save his brother.

Our family was devastated by the death of Matt that year, and the following year, his father, my husband Jeff, also to cancer. The vast chasm of loss and despair was so great that I could not imagine ever enjoying life, much less holidays, again.

No one in life escapes pain or loss, yet, in its audacity, our planet continues to turn, seasons come and go, connected by strands of life. In our family, the year of Matt’s death was the year of our first grandchild’s birth. Following my husband’s death, another grandchild. The lyrics of the song in Fiddler on the Roof, “Sunrise, Sunset” was poignant in the reminder of life being laden with happiness and tears, of sunrises and sunsets.

Holidays, in particular, seem a cruel taunt of what used to be, or will never be. There is a struggle to not allow pain and loss destroy hope, beauty, or joy of life. Matt’s words before he died, admonished us that he would be “pissed” if he saw from Heaven that we were wasting one moment of precious life in mourning. He reminded us of how hard he’d fought those months, for each hour of each day, in hope of another day.

The memory of Matt’s zeal and joy in making his potato-chip-roofed gingerbread house prompted me to carry on our family tradition.

In the years since, gingerbread-house making is a tradition that I bring to each Christmas season. The days it takes to make the dough, baking walls and roofs and assembling houses, is important to me. It keeps alive a tradition based in togetherness, celebration, creativity and memories.

Yearly, my foodie-twin Doni helpfully offers the suggestion that I skip the time and expense of homemade dough, instead, to use graham crackers. My response is always the same, “Never!” The very idea is as much an abomination as if I suggested that Doni use store bought pie crust.

This Thanksgiving I hosted gingerbread house-making at my twin sister’s son and wife’s house, with kids, grandchildren, in-laws and my newlywed son and wife. Predictably, each year, first-time gingerbreaders often decline the offer of joining the sugary building crew, lamenting that they’re not artistic, lack the patience, or too old to make a gingerbread house.

This year, at the gingerbread table, there was an audible gasp when daughter-in-law Erin casually mentioned that she didn’t remember ever making a gingerbread house. Soon enough, Erin impressed fellow gingerbreaders by crafting an elaborate cookie cabin with dimensional chimney and porch. We concluded that Erin’s savant skill set may have been influenced by her father being a contractor of fine homes.

Typically, those who refuse most heartily are the same who remain hours later, last at the table with the other gingerbread die-hards, carving intricate details in a chimney with cotton candy smoke, or painstakingly laying Chicklet gum paths to a log cabin flanked by green gumdrop trees and marshmallow snowmen.

Over the years, I’ve seen my three young granddaughters delight in the fun of creating their own houses, as little toddlers, to seasoned gingerbread house veterans, crafting tile roofs from gum and Tic-tacs, and piles of logs made of pretzel sticks that would make their Uncle Matt proud.

I never take for granted those who participate in this seasonal gingerbread house activity. We share in something that began when I realized that something as basic as a cookie can be the conduit for tradition, love and art.

Shelly Shively

Shelly Shively lives in Redding. She is Interior re-design network certified. Among her specialties are real estate staging, furnishing vacation and new homes, and the art of interior re-design where she transforms and refreshes clients living spaces using their existing belongings. Shelly is also a freelance artist, illustrator, muralist, Whiskeytown kayak volunteer and curator at O Street Gallery. To inquire about a consultation, she may be reached at 530-276-4656 or leinanishively@gmail.com

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