Why we cherish — and guard — the White House gingerbread house
For 50 years, the sweet smell of freshly baked gingerbread houses has filled the halls of the White House as executive residence chefs bake the confectionary treat — a tradition that provides us with holiday continuity from administration to administration. This year’s masterpiece was constructed to match first lady Melania Trump’s “Spirit of America”-themed Christmas decorations: a 385-pound gingerbread house covered in chocolate and icing. The edible spread features a view of the South Portico, with landmarks from across the country that include the Alamo, Space Needle, Mount Rushmore and the Gateway Arch.
The gingerbread house has become synonymous with Christmas at the White House, but it came from meek beginnings. During the first Christmas of the Nixon administration in 1969, first lady Pat Nixon worked with German-born Assistant Chef Hans Raffert to create his hallmark A-frame house decorated with cookies, candies and embellishments of icing. Marzipan figures of Hansel and Gretel (and often the witch) made regular appearances then and in the years following, underscoring the Old World tradition of gingerbread houses.
In 1973, a Time magazine reporter described the impact of the gingerbread house at one of the holiday parties: “An embassy child stood spellbound before this creation, reached out and broke off a piece of the front and popped it in his mouth.” And so it became necessary to post a guard during children’s parties — according to a former presidential aide, “Any available social aide watched over the treasures of the tree, but it took a tough Marine to safeguard the gingerbread house.” By 1977, two Marines were guarding this main attraction in the State Dining Room.
First lady Barbara Bush did not want the tradition to end after Chef Raffert’s 1992 retirement, so she asked legendary Executive White House Pastry Chef Roland Mesnier to try his hand at it. That year, he created an entire gingerbread house village, transforming the gingerbread house into the grand version that continues today. Chef Mesnier used actual White House blueprints to ensure accuracy and, for the next 11 years, as well as in an encore 2006 appearance, he produced amazingly detailed structures, ranging from scale replicas of the White House to historic homes, Washington monuments and more.
At first lady Laura Bush’s request, each gingerbread house from 2001 to 2008 included some sort of replica of the White House — a tradition that has continued since. In 2007, new White House Pastry Chef William “Bill” Yosses created a showstopper scale replica of the south view of the White House, with its lawn inhabited by wildlife found in the national parks, incorporating the “Holiday in the National Parks” theme with the Bush pets, Barney and Miss Beazley, on the rooftop.
A perfectionist, Chef Yosses also used White House blueprints to ensure that the gingerbread house was built to scale. This replica was covered entirely in white chocolate (all subsequent gingerbread houses have been covered in chocolate), making it not only realistic but also one of the heaviest gingerbread houses, weighing in at about 400 pounds. That made the process of getting it from the China Room up to the State Dining Room quite challenging.
At 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., the first families change and executive pastry chefs retire, but the White House gingerbread house has remained a favorite tradition for half a century. The same merriment and wonder that compelled the young embassy child in 1973 to reach out and take a bite continues to captivate visitors, young and old alike. The gingerbread house is always displayed on the same mahogany table with gilded eagle supports — except for once, in 1998, when it was too long — and it provides Americans the continuity we love as one of the cherished Christmas traditions in the People’s House.
Jennifer Boswell Pickens is a White House East Wing historian with expertise in White House traditions, social events and first ladies. She is a public speaker and author of three books, “Christmas at the White House,” “Pets at the White House,” and her latest book, “Entertaining at the White House: Decades of Presidential Traditions.” Follow her on Instagram @jenniferbpickens and Twitter @JenniferPickens.
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