Every year since 1991 my best friend, her husband and selected others have got together on a Sunday afternoon a couple of weeks before Christmas to build a gingerbread house. It is without a doubt my favourite Christmas tradition, and probably one of my favourite days of the year. It is the unofficial beginning of the season.
I do a bit of prep work the day before by raiding local grocery stores for sweets to fill the big sleigh and buying a frightening amount of icing sugar. (5 kilos this year.)(Over 10 pounds for you non-metric types.)
Sunday morning is baking time. In the early years it seemed to take forever to bake the pieces -- but I've obviously improved because this year I had all the pieces and a batch of cookies done in about an hour.
I was torn about what window shape to use in this year's house, so I went for a different style on the front, back and sides. The 'glass' in the windows is made of boiled sweets which melt to fill the cut out shapes while the gingerbread is baking.
This year the construction crew was myself, best friend C, her husband P, and her four gorgeous children - ranging in age from 5 1/2 to 13. It is fair to say that the children look forward to gingerbread house day as much as I do. They think it's amazing that we've been making houses since before they were born and love flipping through the photo album of previous years.
With a bit of Nat King Cole and the Rat Pack crooning Christmas carols in the background we get things underway. (I must confess here that I love Christmas music. I have an embarassingly large number of Christmas CDs, and will buy pretty much any Christmas album put out regardless of who the artist is.)
There is only one rule in the construction of the house and surrounds - but it is strictly enforced - and that is that EVERYTHING used must be edible.
C sets the standard for the afternon by making the best snowman ever. The body and head of the snowman are made out of granulated sugar combined with a teeny bit of water which is then packed by hand into ball shapes and dried out in the oven. I can honestly say Frosty is even cuter in real life than this photo.
Little S makes a grand pathway to the house, lined with mini-iced gems and paved with pastel coloured sweets. I particularly like the lamposts at the entrance.
A few years after we started building the houses we began furnishing them before putting the roof on. Although rather pointless, as the inside can't really be seen when the house is finished - it has become a fixture in the house building experience. This year very little L made a carpet and assisted by C made a sofa and some chairs. M made a TV, complete with a teeny face on the screen.
Health and safety doesn't feature much in gingerbread house construction as you can see by the bonfire built dangerously close to the picnic table with four seats created by lovely goddaughter G. She also built this pretty impressive well, complete with bucket for fetching water.
While all of this is going on P is quietly working on the back of the house. We have an agreement that he can put one tasteless item at the back of each house - and he never (or is that always?) disappoints. Sometimes it is a small detail, other years it can be quite a feature. Previous houses have included a dog kennel (complete with a patch of yellow snow), a hockey rink (including a stretcher, an abandoned hockey stick and a small pool of blood) and one year a motorway.
(If you have small children you may want to cover their eyes now!) This year he included the 'Christmas Hare' which he claimed was traditional. (Yep - that's a rabbit with his head chopped off. Just to the right of the rabbit is an ax. Not many gingerbread houses feature that. ) (We questioned this Christmas Hare thing and eventually he was forced to admit it didn't exist but he couldn't find any turkey shaped biscuits. )
Happily, P was also using the animal crackers in a more pleasant manner - building a very impressive carousel.
When the inside of the house has been furnished, and most of the outside is landscaped we put the roof on the house and take a pizza break. While eating pizza and waiting for the roof to set we watch "How the Grinch Stole Christmas". (Not that Jim Carey thing. The proper animated version.) We have watched the Grinch every single year since we started, and it wouldn't be a gingerbread house Sunday without it.
When Christmas is restored in Whoville we decorate the roof and put the finishing touches on the house. This year the fence is made up of mini Jammy Dodgers and red licorice posts. A sprinkle of icing sugar and we're done.
It is a loud, messy afternoon full of sugar, creativity, singing and laughter. The gingerbread house is a riot of colour and wouldn't win a ribbon at the Good Housekeeping gingerbread competion but every year we proclaim this to be the best house ever and every year we are right.
.....and this is all that remains of the 5 kilos of icing sugar.....