Sunday, December 9, 2018

Christmas Traditions in the 1700s

By Tiffany Amber Stockton

Last month, I shared about the history of the New York Symphony. If you missed that post, you can read it here:

Now, let's go from the crafted instruments of music to holiday traditions.

* * * * *

Christmas Traditions - 1700s

I wavered and pondered and struggled over the topic I'd select for today's post. With Christmas right around the corner, I didn't want anything to feel "contrived." On the other hand, the theme seemed perfect.

So, today, I'm going to cover Christmas traditions in the 1700's.

Christmas wasn't always celebrated the way it is today. In fact, the Puritans of Massachusetts banned any observance of Christmas, and anyone caught observing the holiday had to pay a fine. Connecticut had a law forbidding the celebration of Christmas and the baking of mincemeat pies! A few of the earliest settlers did celebrate Christmas, but it was far from a common holiday in the colonial era.

The first record of Christmas trees in America was for children in the German Moravian Church's settlement in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, Christmas 1747. Actual trees were not decorated, but wooden pyramids covered with evergreen branches were decorated with candles.

The custom of the Christmas tree was introduced in the United States during the War of Independence by Hessian troops. Decorations included lace, ribbon, tin, food items and lit candles. Most other early accounts in the United States were among the German settlers in eastern Pennsylvania. Just as the first trees introduced into Britain did not immediately take off, the early trees introduced into America by the Hessian soldiers were not recorded in any particular quantity. Even so, it is known that the Pennsylvanian German settlements had community trees as early as 1747.

Decorations were still of a 'home-made' variety. Young Ladies spent hours at Christmas Crafts, quilling snowflakes and stars, sewing little pouches for secret gifts and paper baskets with sugared almonds in them. Small bead decorations, fine drawn out silver tinsel came from Germany together with beautiful Angels to sit at the top of the tree. Candles were often placed into wooden hoops for safety.

One of the primary reasons Christmas wasn't celebrated is due to its pagan association. Puritans and Protestants alike frowned upon any connection to this celebration. Any observance was made primarly by German and Dutch colonists in the Middle Colonies. German gifts such as nuts and apples were given to needy children by St. Martin and St. Nicholas know to be the forefathers of Santa Claus as we know him today. Kris Kringle evolved from the German name for the Christ Child (Christkindlein). Dutch settlers coming to America changed St. Nicholas to Sintr Claes who became the gift giver.

However, as the dawning of a new century approached, we begin to see a greater occurrence of the traditions so many celebrate and enjoy today.

* * * * *


* Do you have any German or Dutch ancestry/roots that have influenced what you do today?

* What traditions are special in your home?

* What traditions did you have a child that you continued with your own family?


Tiffany Amber Stockton has been crafting and embellishing stories since childhood, when she was accused of having a very active imagination and cited with talking entirely too much. Today, she has honed those childhood skills to become an author and speaker who also works as a force for literacy as an educational consultant with Usborne Books. On the side, she dabbles in the health & wellness and personal development industry, helping others become their best from the inside out.

She lives with her husband and fellow author, Stuart Vaughn Stockton, along with their two children and two dogs: Nova, a Shiba-Inu/Besenji mix and Nugget a Corgi/Chihuahua mix, in Colorado. She has sold twenty (21) books so far and is represented by Tamela Hancock Murray of the Steve Laube Agency. You can find her on FacebookTwitterGoodReads, and LinkedIn.

Saturday, December 8, 2018

The Naughty List and the History of That Dreaded Lump of Coal

by Kathleen L. Maher

Last year, I wrote about the legend of Santa Claus and its ties to my home state of New York. This year, I'm taking a departure South, that is to say, the South Pole, to explore the legends of Santa's controversial helpers for those designated to the Naughty List.

Black Pete
Last year I explored the early Dutch legend of Sinterklaas, the saintly night visitor who left treats for the good children in their shoes and stockings. These treats might be toys, fruit, nuts, candy, or even money. But Sinterklaas had a counterpart named Zwarte Piet, or Black Peter. He first appeared in a story in 1850 by schoolteacher Jan Schenkman, but the legend precedes this. Some say this Moorish Spaniard character dressed in Renaissance clothing has its roots as far back as the myth of Odin and his raven helpers Huginn and Muninn. When Odin leads the Wild Hunt, according to the legend, these figures would perch at the chimney and listen in on the mortals below, to report on the good and bad. And so it seems, Black Pete served a parallel role for Sinterklaas.

You wouldn't want to merit a visit from Black Pete at Christmastime. That would mean you were one of the bad children, undeserving of gifts. Instead, it is said Black Pete would leave a dirty lump of charcoal from the fireplace. Or a bundle of birch twigs called a "roe", implying you were due for a "Birching." Yikes! 


If you thought Black Pete was scary, this figure would surely terrify you into being a good little child. In Germany, the benevolent figure of Saint Nicholas apparently wasn't enough incentive for kinderlings to finish their homework, clean their room, say their prayers and brush their teeth. For sass-talkers, slackers and rebels, the naughty list takes a nightmarish twist with the legend of Krampus. 

For starters, Krampus was half goat, and half demon. He is the Norse mythology son of HelThe German word for claw, krampen, describes one of this creature's main attributes. On the night before St. Nicholas Day, Dec 6, or Krampusnacht, a naughty child would be lucky to get a lump of coal in his stocking, or even a whipping with a birch stick. Other versions are more nefarious, and I will leave them from this fun blog post. Shudder!

The pagan legend of Krampus was strictly forbidden by the Catholic Church, but some scholars believe these anti-St. Nicholas figures were created partly to ease the Saint's reputation as the bad guy. Who wants to celebrate a Santa that doles out fear and punishment for Christmas, anyway? 

La Befana
In Italy, the Santa Claus figure was actually an old woman who flew on a broomstick. La Befana wouldfly form house to house and sneak down the fireplace to leave either good gifts for nice children or lumps of coal for the bad. Possibly named for the Feast Day Eve on which she visits, La Festa dell'Epifania, she comes the night of January 5. 

Her legend, though to our modern ears sounding like a Halloween witch, is actually rather sweet. As the story goes, when the Magi left to follow the star to see the King who had been born, many set out to meet them to offer gifts to the baby. Befana was too busy with housework, and stayed behind sweeping. But the next day, after realizing she missed the Three Wise Men, she tried to hurry to catch up so she might give her gifts. She never did catch up to the Magi, so Befana spends every year circling with her broom and distributing her gifts to good children since she couldn't give them to the Christ child. But to the naughty boys and girls she brings cinders, onions and garlic. Blech! I'd rather have chocolate.

These legends were interesting to me as I researched a bit about them. I'm really glad we no longer scare our children with witches, goblins and ghosts at Christmastime. The real story of Jesus, who was born to save us from our sins, is so much more uplifting. I know I haven't always been a perfect angel, either as a child or as an adult. So I'm doubly grateful for the grace and hope that Jesus' birth brings.

With His true story in mind, I wish you all a

Joyeux Noël      Frohe Weinachten      Feliz Navidad         Buon Natale

Feliz Natal            Vrolijk kerstfeest


Kathleen L. Maher has had an infatuation with books and fictional heroes ever since her preschool crush, Peter Rabbit. She is one of nine authors in Barbour's 2018 Victorian Christmas Brides Collection, and her story features her hometown of Elmira, New York. Her debut historical, Bachelor Buttons, blends her Irish heritage and love of the American Civil War. She won the 2012 ACFW Genesis contest for her Civil War story, released this summer under a new title The Abolitionist’s Daughter. Kathleen shares an old farmhouse in upstate New York with her husband, children, and a small zoo of rescued animals.

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Friday, December 7, 2018

Rippavilla Plantation, Spring Hill, Tennessee

By Michelle Shocklee

Rippavilla Plantation
I'm so pleased to share the fascinating history of another gorgeous plantation home with you! I'd heard about Rippavilla Plantation, located in Spring Hill, Tennessee, but up until last Sunday had not had a chance to see it in person. When friends invited us to join them on a candlelight tour of Rippavilla to commemorate the Battle of Spring Hill, I couldn't pass it up. I was not disappointed!

Nathaniel Francis Cheairs IV

Built in 1855, Rippavilla was the home of Nathaniel and Susan Cheairs. Nathaniel was the youngest of ten children born to Nathaniel III and Sarah Cheairs. Notice the names of his parents: Nathaniel and Sarah. Guess what his grandparents names were? Yep. Nathaniel and Sarah. And his great grandparents too! The tale goes that there were five generations of Nathaniel Cheairs's who married women named Sarah. So you can imagine what his family, especially his father, thought when Nathaniel IV fell in love with a pretty girl named Susan! When Nathaniel announced their engagement, his father offered him $5,000 to break it off and find a wife named Sarah. Can you imagine? Today that would be somewhere in the neighborhood of $230,000.

Susan McKissick Cheairs and daughter
But Nathaniel was very much in love with Susan Peters McKissick, the daughter of a wealthy businessman, and married her on September 2, 1841. Mr. McKissick owned a brickyard and offered to supply all the bricks and slave labor needed to build the young couple a beautiful home. Luckily, Nathaniel's father got over his disappointment about Susan and upon his passing left most of his land to Nathaniel. (His siblings and even his mother contested the will, but it held up in court and he kept the property.) His father even gave them the $5,000 in gold as a wedding gift.

Work began on Rippavilla in 1852 and would continue for three years. The family lived in rooms above the kitchen until the mansion was completed in 1855. Susan gave birth to her fourth and last child soon after moving into their new home.

No one is quite sure why Nathaniel named the home Rippavilla (some stories say it was Rippo Villa), but no matter what it's called, it's a grand and beautiful place. The main house is over 10,000 sq. ft, with lovely rooms and a staircase that stirs my imagination. Like many southern plantations--including Rose Hill, the fictional plantation in my historical novels--the porch ceilings at Rippavilla are painted "haint blue." It was believed that painting the ceiling blue would ward off "haints" or haunts and evil spirits by tricking them into believing the blue was water, because apparently evil spirits can't cross water.

Haint Blue porch ceilings at Rippavilla

The music room at Rippavilla

Staircase at Rippavilla

Rippavilla played a role in the American Civil War. At various times during the war, both the Union Army and the Confederate Army commandeered it. Prior to the Battle of Spring Hill on November 29, 1864, the Confederate Army of Tennessee, commanded by Lt. Gen. John Bell Hood, camped on the grounds of the plantation. After failing to inflict serious damage to the Federal army, the Rebels slept while the Yankees sneaked right past Rippavilla during the night, a tragic mistake that would lead to the Battle of Franklin the following night, resulting in more than 10,000 casualties. After the battle, the house became a temporary hospital and many wounded soldiers were brought there. 

Slave cabin at Rippavilla

Like all southern plantations, Rippavilla has a shameful past involving slaves. I couldn't find any information on the exact number of slaves it took to build Rippavilla nor how many slaves the Cheairs family owned, but it would have probably been in the hundreds. Nathaniel owned more than 1,100 acres at the time and grew all kinds of crops which would have required many, many slaves. A small slave cabin still stands on the land as a reminder that despite the beauty of the grand home, people lived in bondage in its shadow.

If you're ever in the Spring Hill area, I encourage you to stop by Rippavilla and take the tour. It's well worth your time. (As an interesting little side note, Nathaniel Cheairs is buried in Columbia, TN in the Rose Hill cemetery! Sound familiar? 😃 )

My question to you: If you'd been in Nathaniel's shoes, would you have taken the money and found a mate that made your family happy? Or would you have chosen love?

Michelle Shocklee is the award-winning author of The Planter's Daughter and The Widow of Rose Hill. Her historical novella set in the New Mexico Territory is included in The Mail-Order Brides Collection. Michelle and her husband of thirty-one years make their home in Tennessee. Connect with her at


Widowed during the war, Natalie Ellis finds herself solely responsible for Rose Hill plantation. When Union troops arrive with a proclamation freeing the slaves, all seems lost. How can she run the plantation without slaves? In order to save her son’s inheritance she strikes a deal with the arrogant, albeit handsome, Colonel Maish. In exchange for use of her family’s property, the army will provide workers to bring in her cotton crop. But as her admiration for the colonel grows, a shocking secret is uncovered. Can she trust him with her heart and her young, fatherless son?

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Christmas Traditions in Denmark

Danish Christmas tree with paper ornaments and real candles.
By Malene Thyssen - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0
One of the first historical short stories I wrote as a young aspiring writer (at least that I’m not embarrassed to think of now—my high school stories were so predictable!)—and my first to actually be published, if only in our hometown newspaper, was about a Danish immigrant girl in 19th century Minnesota who struggled with missing the Christmas traditions of her homeland.

As my family has some Danish heritage, I loved learning about the beautiful Christmas traditions of Denmark in order to write that story, and I thought this month, as we enter the Christmas season, it would be fun to share some of them with you.

Though I’m focusing here on historical traditions that have been around for a while, many of these still hold true in Denmark today.

Before Christmas

Denmark is a place that has preserved the Advent Wreath, traditionally made of real spruce and hung from the ceiling with red ribbons, rather than set on a table like Advent Wreaths often are in America. But the same tradition of lighting one candle each Sunday before Christmas applies.
Furthermore, since the main Danish celebration of Christmas happens on Christmas Eve, the 23rd of December is traditionally a time for visiting friends before the main festivities begin.

Remembering the Animals

In Denmark, all God’s creatures are included in the celebration of Christ’s birth. On Christmas Eve, sheaves of oats or other grain are traditionally stuck in trees for the birds to enjoy, and other animals, wild and domestic, often get a special treat too. This partly comes from the legend of animals being able to talk on Christmas Eve.

The Juletrae

Danes love their Christmas tree, or Juletrae. Real trees are the rule, and even today real candles are often preferred over electric Christmas tree lights, just as they were in the 19th century.
Danish paper heart baskets, or Julehjerter
By Jens Gyldenkærne Clausen - eget billede, Public Domain

The Danish are known for their traditional papercraft, and most famous are the red and white woven paper hearts seen on Danish Christmas trees, as well as hanging on walls and elsewhere. The colors both signify Christmas and mimic the beloved Danish flag. I had fun making a Danish paper heart for our Christmas tree once—though the weaving is a little tricky, it’s very doable! Here's a link if you'd like to give the craft a try yourself: Making Danish Christmas Heart Baskets.


Traditional Danish Christmas meal
Photo by Malene Thyssen, Wikimedia Commons
Of course, Christmas everywhere tends to be accompanied by delicious culinary traditions, and Denmark is no exception. The whole Christmas season is full of treats and home-baked goodies, like pebernodder, small traditional spice cookies. 

On Christmas Eve, families for generations have enjoyed a roast duck or goose stuffed with apples and prunes, accompanied by such delicacies as boiled, carmelized potatoes and pickled red cabbage. Dessert is a scrumptious cold rice pudding, or ris a l'amande, topped with hot cherry sauce. Traditionally an almond is hidden in the pudding for a lucky winner to find.

Christmas Eve – Juleaften

Called Juleaften in Danish, Christmas Eve is the heart of this beloved celebration. After dinner, the family troops in to see the Christmas tree—which traditionally would not be set up until Christmas Eve. As everyone soaks in the wonder of the flickering candles, the family circles the tree singing Christmas carols and hymns together. And then, of course, time for presents!
A 19th century Danish family circles the Juletrae on Christmas Eve.
By Viggo Johansen, 1891 - Den Hirschsprungske Samling, Public Domain

I hope you have enjoyed this little peek into the historical Christmas traditions of one little country in Europe: Denmark. Until the new year, I will now just wish you a Glaedelig Jul—Merry Christmas!

Kiersti Giron holds a life-long passion for history and historical fiction. She loves to write stories that show the intersection of past and present, explore relationships that bridge cultural divides, and probe the healing Jesus can bring out of brokenness. Kiersti has been published in several magazines, won the 2013 ACFW Genesis Award - Historical for her manuscript Beneath a Turquoise Sky, and is currently a 2018 Genesis Finalist. An English teacher and member of American Christian Fiction Writers, Kiersti loves learning and growing with other writers penning God's story into theirs, as well as blogging at She lives in California with her wonderful husband, Anthony, and their two kitties.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Christmas Snow Bandstand Gazebos

Hastings Park Bandstand, Lexington, MA. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

In the tranquil solitude of winter when the brass bands have tucked their instruments away from the cold, their bandstand remains as a testament to music, but not as the sole purpose of its existence, for as summer wanes and winter approaches, the structure is reclaimed for the holiday season which may even include a Christmas carol sing-a-long or two.

Decorating a bandstand or gazebo usually means greenery and most definitely lights. The personal gazebos found in yards, whether in the city or country, stand out among the myriad of lighted decorations at this time of year as an inviting place to sit and relax, like this western-themed gazebo in Wantagh, New York. 

Western-themed Christmas Gazebo. Courtesy of VinnyCiro, Pixabay

If this next image of a double bandstand looks familiar it's because it was featured in my Oct 5 post of Bandstands with a Music Theme. Since the bottom level is a fountain in the summer, I can imagine skating during the Christmas season, but I doubt it would happen. Inviting damage from skate blades doesn't seem responsible after the enormous amount of money spent on its refurbishment. Still, I can dream.

Kings Square Christmas Bandstand, Saint John, NB. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

If you like your Christmas decorations to be chock-full of bright color, you might enjoy the seasonal display at Brookside Gardens, Silver Spring Maryland, where unique sculptures are the result of lighted botanical specimens.

Brookside at the Holidays, November 2009. Courtesy Brookside Gardens, Wikimedia

On the other hand, a historic wooden bandstand, decorated only with crystals of nature's snow, is a beautiful sight of tranquility during this hectic season. It waits, withstanding the wintry weather, knowing the cold season will end and warmth will bring the fun-filled days of summer back for another round. 

Wintry Gazebo. Courtesy of VinnyCiro, Pixabay

If you could have your pick, which of the above would you love to see when you look out your window, and why?

This concludes my series on historical bandstands. The other posts can be found:

Anita Mae Draper's historical romances are written under the western skies of the Saskatchewan prairie where her love of research and genealogy yield fascinating truths that layer her stories with rich historical details. Anita's contemporary short story, Here We Come A-Wassailing, found in A Cup of Christmas Cheer Volume 4, was a finalist for the Word Guild's 2015 Word Awards. Her novellas are included in Austen in Austin Volume 1, The American Heiress Brides Collection, and The Secret Admirer Romance Collection. Readers can check out Anita's Pinterest boards for a visual idea of her stories to enrich their reading experience. Discover more at:
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Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Revisiting the Christmas Tree Ship

I love Christmas and the Advent season leading up to December 25th. The month of December is full of Christmas concerts, parties, colorful decorations, and--of course--celebrating the "Reason for the Season" the birth of Jesus Christ. This year the month of December will be a bit different for me because I am on a January 1st deadline for the second book in my historical series. So while a lot of festivities are going on I'll be hard at work. I intended to research how Christmas was celebrated in the 1890s, the setting of my book, but I don't have free time to do that. Last January I posted about the Christmas Tree Ship that was an annual event in historic Chicago. What more appropriate time than now to revisit this unique occurrence and the man who started it? 

Since coming to the Chicago area over 30 years ago, I’ve heard many stories about large schooners that wrecked during wild storms on Lake Michigan. I thought the dangerous storms only occurred in spring and summer, but I recently heard about a wreck that occurred during late November snowstorm.

Captain Schuenemann (center) & Crew - Public Domain
During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Sail-powered ships, or schooners as they were called, populated the Great Lakes. One of the ships, the Rouse Simmons, was built in Milwaukee and made its inaugural passage into service in 1868. In 1870, it became part of a fleet belonging to Charles H. Hackley, that hauled lumber from various ports along the shores of Lake Michigan to the port of Chicago. Later, the ship changed owners several times until Herman E. Schuenemann, a native of Wisconsin and a well-establish lake captain, became a part owner.

At the same time, people had begun decorating evergreen trees to display inside their homes to celebrate Christmas. With each year the demand for evergreens grew, and soon, during December, a small group of lake schooners, loaded with Christmas trees, began making runs from northern Michigan to Chicago. After arriving at the port in Chicago, they sold the trees directly off the ships. One of those ships was the Rouse Simmons

Captain Schuenemann loved making the tree run every year, and people soon started calling the Rouse Simmons, the Christmas Tree ship.  And every December, it was Captain Schuenemann at the helm when the ship pulled into port loaded down with evergreen trees. By 1912, he had been making the trip for nearly thirty years.
Last Known Photo of the Rouse Simmons (picture in public domain, 
Wikimedia Commons)
Known as Captain Santa, he found great joy of giving many of the trees to needy families. Over the years, his reputation of generosity grew as the ship was eagerly awaiting at the port.

By 1912, the Rouse Simmons was 44 years old and showing wear and tear for its years of service as a cargo ship. Still, she was kept in service and on November 22, 1912, carrying close to 5,000 trees in the cargo hold and on its decks, the ship left for Chicago. Some who witnessed the schooner as it sailed for Chicago, said the vessel looked like a floating forest.

Legend has it that without the luxury of today’s radar and satellites, there was no way to know about approaching storms and their proximity to the lake. During that trip, a very dangerous winter storm came out of the northwest and caught everyone by surprise. Several known ships sank that day, but, no one had seen the Rouse Simmons since it left for Chicago.  As word traveled up and down the Wisconsin shoreline, people watched for the missing vessel. Finally, a life saving station in Kewaunee, Wisconsin reported a schooner had been spotted heading south, it’s flag at half-mast—a sure sign of distress. But with poor visibility and no identifying marks on the ship, no one could be sure it was the Rouse Simmons. Rescue boats were immediately summoned and as soon as they were able, they headed for the spot where the vessel had been sighted. But, when they arrived in the area where the ship was last seen, there was no trace of a schooner.

Schuenemann’s wife remained hopeful that her husband had taken the ship into a safe harbor to ride out the storm and he would show up in Chicago a few days past schedule. Sadly, the schooner never appeared. However, through the spring and summer of that year, signs of the schooner’s destiny showed up as pieces of Christmas trees began washing up on shore. Then in 1924, fishermen found Captain Schuenemann’s wallet, wrapped in oilskin, which protected its contents from water damage. The wallet was returned to his wife.

Mrs. Schuenemann and her daughters continued the tree business, first bringing the trees to the city by schooners and later by train. After the widow died, the daughters sold the business and by 1920, the deliveries to Chicago by rail and water ended.

In 2006, during an underwater archaeological survey, divers found the ship’s anchor chain, masts and spar along with the bow of the wreck where many of the trees were stored below deck and surprisingly still intact. Pictures of these artifacts can be seen at various websites detailing the Christmas Tree ship’s story.

A picture of the wreck that sits at the bottom of Lake Michigan off the shores of Two Rivers, WI is at left. Every year divers place an evergreen tree on the wreckage.

Although new to me, the legend of the Christmas ship has been around for years, mixed in with ghost stories and sightings of ships once lost to the waters of the lake.  There is even a children’s book about ship. 

Many publications about the Christmas Tree Ship can be found on But the most interesting one to me is the account described on the Wisconsin Historical Society's website (link is below) that states that a snow storm didn't cause the schooner to go down at all. You can read the text for yourself at the website link and decide for yourself. Was it a storm or something else?

Every December the final voyage of the Rouse Simmons is remembered by the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Mackinaw as it travels the same route and delivers a load of trees to the needy in Chicago.

Have you ever seen a ship wreckage in person? Did you read the Wis. Historical accounting of the wreck? Do you think that theory is more plausible? Either way, the ship got into trouble. Trouble enough that a seasoned ship captain couldn't escape. 


You can find many books and documentaries on the Christmas Tree Ship at the following website where I obtained the information for this article.

One of the most colorful and interesting websites to learn more about the history and lore of what came to be called the Santa Claus ship can be found at this link.

Another link will take you to a site whose narrative includes more detail than the others. Not sure how much is from known fact though. Still interesting to read:

The photo of the Rouse Simmons wreckage: Image ID: 120451; Creator: Tamara Thomsen. The photo and other similar photos, along with an accounting of what really happened to the Rouse Simmons can be found at

Pamela has written most of her life, beginning with her first diary at age eight. Her novels include Thyme For Love, Surprised by Love in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin and Second Chance Love. Future novels include Shelter Bay, Book 2 in her Newport of the West series set in her hometown of Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. She lives in northeastern Illinois with her two rescue cats.

Monday, December 3, 2018

Inside the White House: Christmas Gingerbread Houses

Gingerbread has been part of America cuisine since its inception, and the first First Lady, Martha Washington, apparently had quite a good recipe for soft gingerbread. President and Mrs. Grant hired their cook based on her gingerbread, alone. However, it's not known when the first gingerbread house entered the White House, although some presidential families indubitably included them in their holiday decor.

It wasn't until the Nixon Administration that a gingerbread house became an official White House tradition. Assistant Executive Chef Hans Raffert designed and built a traditional A-frame style house for the family.

File:Pat Nixon first White House gingerbread house 1972.jpg
Pat Nixon and the first official gingerbread house in the State Dining Room, 1972. Public Domain.
Since then, a gingerbread house has been carefully crafted and placed on the 1902 mahogany console table in the State Dining Room, in front of the gilded mirror, for the family and visitors to enjoy during the holidays. 

What began as a sweet, A-frame style decoration of perhaps 1-2 feet in height continued through the Ford, Carter, and Reagan administrations, into the administration of George H. W. Bush. 
File:Larry Hagman - Hans Raffert - Nancy Reagan.jpg
Nancy Reagan and her dog Rex speaking with with White House Executive Chef Hans Raffert and actor Larry Hagman dressed as a cowboy-hat wearing Santa Claus, December 9, 1985. Public Domain

In 1992, Roland Mesnier became Executive Pastry Chef, and he took over the job of creating the annual gingerbread house. That year, he created five gingerbread houses decorated with marzipan, icing, and spun sugar for the Bushes, with their likenesses crafted in marzipan, frolicking in sugary snow.

In 1993, he created a gingerbread replica of the White House, entitled "House of Socks" after the First Cat. Twenty-two marzipan sculptures of Socks frolicked around the house, and the personal touch of adding figures of the First Pet was well-received by the family and public alike.

File:Photograph of Socks the Cat Standing Next to the Gingerbread Replica of the White House- 12-05-1993 (6461501333).jpg
Socks the "First Cat" checking out the gingerbread house in 1993. Public Domain.
Today, the gingerbread houses weigh between 300 and 500 pounds. They are unique each year, and while the White House is often recreated in gingerbread, other buildings have been depicted: Santa's workshop, recreations of Bill and Hillary Clinton's childhood homes (in separate years), monuments in Washington, D.C. (for the Millennium Celebration during the Clinton Administration), a Nutcracker ballet stage, and a winter castle. 

Generally, the gingerbread houses go with the holiday theme selected by the first lady. Once she and her staff have come up with a theme--generally in the summer months--the executive pastry chef begins thinking of ideas.
File:Laura Bush and chef Roland Mesnier.jpg
Roland Mesnier with First Lady Laura Bush in 2006. Public Domain.
Once the design is approved by the First Lady's office and plans have been constructed, the pastry chefs start baking gingerbread, which must dry and harden. This can take weeks, so it generally happens mid-autumn. 

File:Replica of the White House made of gingerbread and white chocolate.jpg
Gingerbread house in 2009, with kitchen garden. By Samatha Appleton, Public Domain
A band saw is used to cut the pieces to size. Then, the chefs and chocolatiers create architectural elements out of chocolate, gum paste, or marzipan. Windows are crafted out of gelatin, and royal icing and marzipan are used to fashion vegetation and landscaping. Sometimes miniature furniture is created to sit inside the windows, too--edible, of course. 

Sometimes, personalized touches are added to the gingerbread house, like the addition of candied versions of the presidential pets or the garden. 

In late November, the team working on the gingerbread house puts in hours of overtime assembling the structure. A White House electrician installs lighting, if desired--and it's the only part of the gingerbread house that can't be eaten. This work is often done in the China Room.
File:Susie Morrison - White House gingerbread house 2010.jpg
Current White House Executive Pastry Chef Susie Morrison crafts the White House Gingerbread House in the China Room, 2010. Public Domain
Then the completed house is moved to the State Dining Room--a stressful job. Fragile and weighing in at a few hundred pounds, the gingerbread house can be difficult to transport and adjust. However, the gingerbread house is always in place, looking perfect (and delicious!) by the end of Thanksgiving weekend, when the White House holiday decorations are unveiled.

The White House gingerbread house displayed in the State Dining Room is made 250 pounds of pastillage, 40 pounds of marzipan, 25 pounds of gum paste, 80 pounds of gingerbread dough and 25 pounds of sugar. DoD photo by Terri Moon Cronk
Obama Administration Gingerbread White House with First Dogs, Bo and Sunny.
A display shows the annual White House Gingerbread House during an event honoring military families at the White House in Washington, D.C., Dec. 2, 2015. The gingerbread house weighs close to 500 pounds, including more than 250 pounds of gingerbread dough, 150 pounds of dark chocolate, 25 pounds of gum paste, 25 pounds of pulled and sculpted sugar work and 25 pounds of icing. DoD photo by EJ Hersom
2015 Gingerbread House covered in dark chocolate, weighing in at close to 500 pounds. 

The White House is not the only gingerbread creation for 2018. The Capitol, Lincoln Memorial, Jefferson Memorial, and Washington Monument are included this year. The scene was made from over a hundred pounds of gingerbread and twenty pounds of royal icing. Sadly, I couldn't find a photo of it labeled for reuse, but you can look at the display here:

Thousands of visitors stroll past the gingerbread house each year, but the presidential families enjoy the houses, too. Amy Carter, Chelsea Clinton, and the Bush twins have been rumored (or have admitted) to have nibbled on the houses while they were children.


How about you? Do you craft gingerbread houses?


Susanne Dietze began writing love stories in high school, casting her friends in the starring roles. Today, she's the award-winning author of over a dozen romances. A pastor's wife and mom of two, she loves fancy-schmancy tea parties, the beach, and curling up on the couch with a costume drama and a plate of nachos. You can visit her on her website,, and sign up for her newsletter for an occasional cheery hello: