Christmas Tradition: Gingerbread Houses

Introduction: In this article, Gena Philibert-Ortega searches old newspapers to find recipes for building your own gingerbread house for Christmas. Gena is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.

What holiday decorations do you look forward to year after year? There’s the traditional Christmas tree with the twinkling lights and stockings hung by the fireplace – but what other decorations are part of your family’s traditions?

Photo: gingerbread house with candy
Photo: gingerbread house with candy. Credit: Muriel Frey; Wikimedia Commons.

Every family is different and each has their own holiday traditions. If baking is one of your traditions, chances are you are either making cookies to eat or to build with. Even if you don’t assemble your own, most likely you are familiar with gingerbread houses via the fairy tale starring Hansel and Gretel. The cookie-based homes can be traced to the 17th century and eventually become associated with Christmas, possibly because of a connection between gingerbread and religious ceremonies or guilds.*

Gingerbread houses can be as complex or simple as a family wants (or has time for). Families may choose to bake their own gingerbread pieces, “gluing” them together with frosting to create a house, yard, and even a gingerbread family decorated with candy pieces. It’s a food creation that is meant to be admired for weeks (though in our home someone always takes a bite of the cookie roof).

While you can go to the store and purchase a prepackaged kit complete with gingerbread pieces, icing, and candy decorations, you can also try your own hand at cooking the gingerbread pieces. Need some inspiration? There are many creative ideas in a collection of old newspapers, such as GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives.

Early 20th Century Gingerbread Houses

Historical newspapers provide a sense of how gingerbread houses played a part in holiday celebrations over the generations. For example, this 1925 newspaper article titled “The Christmas Dinner” suggests that the gingerbread house and an accompanying Santa cookie be used as a centerpiece.

This article asks:

“As for the decorative centerpiece for the Christmas table this year, why not try a gingerbread house with a gingerbread Santa Claus? Can you imagine the thrill of nibling the chimney of Santa’s house, or actually swallowing a spicy, crumbly hand of the beloved old Saint?”

It goes on to give instructions and the recipe for building Santa’s house.

A recipe for a gingerbread house, Riverside Daily Press newspaper article 22 December 1925
Riverside Daily Press (Riverside, California), 22 December 1925, page 11

More Modern Gingerbread Houses

The nice thing about gingerbread house recipes is that you can find the perfect one in either older newspapers or more recent ones. This 1983 article “Gingerbread House: A Creative Cook’s Delight” includes a recipe for gingerbread and a diagram to use as a guide for cutting the cookie pieces.

A recipe for a gingerbread house, Dallas Morning News newspaper article 8 December 1983
Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 8 December 1983, page 2E

Even better is this 1971 pattern that includes gingerbread people that you can use to decorate your gingerbread home or for Christmas tree ornaments.

A recipe for a gingerbread house, Augusta Chronicle newspaper article 24 December 1971
Augusta Chronicle (Augusta, Georgia), 24 December 1971, page 30

The best part of this 1977 newspaper article on gingerbread castles is that it includes a list of tips for putting together your own yuletide centerpiece. Tips include taking your time to build your creation. Don’t make and decorate the house in one day (good advice to heed so that the frosting “glue” has time to harden). Accidents happen, so prepare for possible cookie breakage by baking duplicate gingerbread pieces ahead of time (I’m sure you can find something to do with the leftover cookies).

A recipe for a gingerbread house, Boston Herald newspaper article 8 December 1977
Boston Herald (Boston, Massachusetts), 8 December 1977, page 31
Tips for building a gingerbread house, Boston Herald newspaper article 8 December 1977
Boston Herald (Boston, Massachusetts), 8 December 1977, page 31

Are You Building a Gingerbread House?

Are you building a gingerbread house this holiday season? Do you have a family gingerbread recipe? Is your cookie house more of a gingerbread village? What candies do you use to decorate? I’d love to hear about your family traditions in the comments below.

* “The Un-Christmassy Origin of Gingerbread Houses,” Smithsonian (https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/un-christmassy-origin-gingerbread-houses-180967461/: accessed 2 December 2020.

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