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.

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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. 

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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:


  1. My daughter and I have tried using the premade kits with the grandchildren, but they don't stay together very well! It is fun to bake and decorate some kind of Christmas cookie, whether gingerbread men or sugar cookies. And with the girls, it's all about the sprinkles!

    1. I have always been in that same boat, Connie--the kids don't stick together! Then one of my friends told me three words: Hot Glue Gun. Since we don't eat the gingerbread houses anyway, why not glue them with something stronger than royal icing?

      I love decorating cookies, too. And yes, sprinkles are a must!

    2. Hmmm. Interesting. I'll have to mention that to my daughter.

    3. Oh my I see I said "the kids don't stick together." I meant the KITS! Argh!

      Have a good time decorating with the kids!

  2. Love your overview of the gingerbread houses...I always enjoy that part of the Whitehouse Christmas Tour program.

    1. Hi Sandi! I enjoy that part, too. It's always amazing to me how much work, time, and care go into the gingerbread displays!

      Thanks for coming by.

  3. What a wonderful tradition! I had no idea. Thanks for sharing!

    1. It is a fun tradition, isn't it? Thank you so much for coming by!

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  4. Great post, Suzie. I love the tradition. I used to buy all sorts of candies, etc to decorate the gingerbread pieces I baked for the kids, but as they grew, their interest in putting the pieces together waned and they simply ate the candy. Now I just bake gingerbread cookies and decorate in the same manner as my sugar cookies.

    Thanks for the link to the grand gingerbread display this year. It's beautiful in white, and seems to set off the table beneath it which appears to be made of chocolate. I doubt it, but can you imagine the snacking that would be going on if it were. Teehee.

    1. Ah, yes, the snacking that is always involved along with the decorating... I have been guilty of that, too. I imagine your gingerbread cookies are delicious!

      This year's display really is gorgeous, isn't it? I imagine the smell is wonderful...who could blame us if we nibbled? Haha!

      Thanks for coming by!

  5. I love gingerbread houses, but the only one I ever tried was a disaster. It kept collapsing. I did make decorated cookies with my grandchildren when they were younger, but they're all grown now with the youngest in high school. We have some fun pictures of us decorating and getting icing everywhere.

    When I did a blog on the White House China, I read about the houses and thought they were beautiful. It's great tradition.

    1. What fun memories of decorating with your grandchildren, Martha! As for making the houses, I agree--it's much tougher than it looks. I've always enjoyed seeing others create fun and beautiful displays, but I've never been able to do anything that looked halfway decent.

      Hope you're having a great day!