This piece was published in the Pasadena Star News on December 25, 2003.
I hoped the tears I shed wouldn’t splash down on the gingerbread and put splotches on it. I stood alone in my crummy little kitchen surrounded by bags of flour and sugar and jars of molasses as I baked my gingerbread houses. I was in the middle of gingerbread house production, a tradition I have observed since I was a kid – through thick and thin. That particular year was very thin indeed.
Holiday traditions can be a source of great joy during good years and can cut like a knife during hard times. In the 30 years I have been making gingerbread houses I have never missed a year – even though I rolled the dough through my tears a couple of times. During the sad years the smell of the gingerbread reminds me of happier days.
My tradition of making gingerbread houses began as a disappointment. One year my uncle gave my family a gingerbread house. My mother was so enchanted with it she wouldn’t allow her hungry pack of kids to eat it until after Christmas. I stood and stared at it for hours, willing the day to come when we could dive in.
Finally, December 26th dawned and Mom gave us permission to eat the gingerbread house. Our euphoria quickly turned to disgust as we tried to bit into the cookie and found it was as hard as a rock – and stale too. I vowed right then and there with every fiber of my eleven-year-old being that I would learn to make a gingerbread house the following year.
The next year I pestered Mom to help me bake a cookie house. Our first attempt failed miserably because we made a sugar cookie and, well, the cookie crumbled. We had no idea what kind of icing to make that would hold the house together so, even if the cookie had held up, it wouldn’t have stayed together for long. We finally gave up.
The next Christmas Mom found a recipe for gingerbread in a magazine, along with a pattern, an icing recipe and instructions. At last we tasted (and smelled) sweet success and a tradition was born.
I continued to make the houses every year and, during lean times sold them to friends to raise money. One year I used melted Hershey bars for shingles, the next I used melted sugar for window panes. Although the fancy touches were fun, they never stuck and I always returned to may basic house design, with M & M’s for roof trim and candy canes for shutters.
In the past ten years I have given my gingerbread houses to homeless shelters, local fire and police, social service agencies, neighbors, my sister’s foster children and friends. Everyone at work looks forward to devouring a house every year and they can now completely demolish it in one eight-hour shift.
Each year as I pull out my heavy-duty mixer and begin to sift the flour I take a silent inventory of the year gone by. Just like everyone else, sometimes my “blessings” list is shorter than my “challenges” list.