Gingerpalooza! A step-by-step guide for making memories

We know it’s a bit late for a how-to on throwing a holiday party…

..seeing as Christmas is only 5 days away!  But we wanted to get this down while it’s still fresh in our minds (and share photos for those who wanted some).  We figure we’ll pull this one out again in early December next year, if we’re still blogging, but just in case we forget, might want to bookmark this now!

1.  Order beautiful weather

A bright, sunny day isn’t a requirement for a great gingerbread party, but it helps.  It makes your house look beautiful in the early morning light, which will fill you with a sense of calm.  You know, that thing that comes before a storm.

christmas tree in the morning sun, with stockings in the background

All is calm, all is bright...

2.  Make sugar cookies

Because you are so on top of it all, you’ll have made the dough the night before–from a recipe touted as the best sugar cookie recipe ever.  (I’m not on top of it enough to remember which blogger pointed me to it, so that I can properly show my gratitude by linking to her post, but at least I can point you to the recipe, which can be found here on Apartment Therapy.)

For once, something will actually live up to its hype, and you will make the best sugar cookies you’ve ever made, which will taste as good as they look. (It’s the lemon zest and almond extract that does it.  Truly, no special skills required, other than the ability to read and follow directions.)

cooling rack with sugar cookies on it

3.  Get the music ready.

This one can really be done any time, but thanks to Spotify, you can do it really quickly the morning of the party, if need be.  I’m grateful to Molly at The Nesting Game for turning me on to this music source.  (Had been wondering what all those Spotify notices on my FB feed were about, but didn’t care enough to find out.)

It’s free, it’s legal, and it’s easy.  Cane made our party play list in less than an hour while I was cutting out snowflakes the night before the party.  (More on the snowflakes later this week.  Maybe.) Like so many others, we’re really liking She & Him Christmas tunes.  We had a nice mix of traditional and contemporary songs–and no  Santa Baby!  (Why is that song on all the time now?)

4.  Set up the gingerbread house-making table.

metal cans filled with candiesBecause (as I mentioned before) you’re so on top of it, you’ve got all the supplies you need for the kids to make gingerbread masterpieces.  That means you’ve got:

Boxes of graham crackers. (Because, as explained here, you don’t want to use actual gingerbread.  Trust me on this one:  Graham crackers.  Lots of them.)

Various kinds of decorative candies, bought from the bulk food bins of a local grocery store.  We’ve found that these are perennial favorites:  Christmas-colored candy corn, jelly beans, red hots, gum drops, gummies in Christmasy shapes/colors.  But the best stuff this year came from Kathy, who brought all her kids’ leftover candy from Halloween and Easter.  (No judging!  You know there’ve been years you’ve had Easter candy still hanging around at Christmas.)  Kathy also brought mini-ice cream cones, which opened up creative possibilities heretofore unseen by our crew.

A plastic table cloth.  I know:  Plastic is evil.  Maybe you don’t want to go the plastic route.  But maybe you have one that’s been sitting around (purchased for some other event and not used), and you know it would be really nice to be able to just scoop up all the gingerbread detritus at the end of the construction party and plop it in the trash. If so, go with it.  Just this once.  You can promise you won’t buy plastic ever again.

Icing, aka “mortar,” which means powdered sugar and egg whites.  In past years, we’ve tried all manner of “glue” for these houses, including duct tape.  (Yes, duct tape.)  This year, Lisa found a recipe for the perfect adhesive, which includes egg whites.  This caused us to stand around the kitchen during the party, slapping our collective foreheads for not being able to figure this out before.

You’ll need lots of sugar and egg whites.  There are all kinds of recipes online for icing (here and here and here, for starters).  You won’t need to use anything but the sugar and egg whites–we used two eggs for every 3 1/2 cups of sugar. With 6 houses, we went through about 12 cups of sugar.  (We lost count in the house-making melee, because the mom who was supposed to bring the icing was felled by a migraine, and we found ourselves making icing as fast as the kids could mortar together their graham crackers.)

A big table.  You’ll need room for all the builders to spread out, as well as room for all the building supplies.  At our party, everyone brings some construction materials, and everyone shares.

table filled with gingerbread house candies

5.  Set up the cookie decorating table.

Sure, you had to make the cookies–but you don’t have to decorate them.  The kids can do that.  We’ve found it’s good to have an activity for the kids who finish their houses first.  And, this also counts as dessert, so you don’t have to make anything special for that.  A craft and dessert all in one?  We thought that was pretty brilliant.

Some sprinkles, some icing, and another plastic tablecloth, and you’re good to go.

table with supplies for decorating sugar cookies

6.  Set up a snack table.

This does not need to be anything fancy.  Some chips, some veggies, some dips, some drinks.  If you’d like, you can make the kind of crab dip my mom always made at Christmas-time (recipe here, which is probably not her exact recipe, but it’s close enough).  Or, you can make my guacomole, for which I don’t have an actual recipe–but everyone agreed it was really good.  Here’s what I remember using:

4 smallish avocados, pretty ripe
2 smallish tomatoes, diced
Half a bunch of cilantro, chopped into small bits
Garlic (2-3 spoonfuls from a jar of diced garlic)
Cumin (about 10 or so shakes from the bottle)
Chile pepper (about 6 or 7 shakes)
Salt (3 or 4 big finger pinches of coarse salt

Smash up the avocados and stir in the tomatoes and cilantro.  Then, start adding in the other ingredients.  You might start with smaller amounts, then taste and add more as you think you need (my usual method).  Don’t overthink this; it’s not like baking, where precise measurements matter.

table filled with party snacks

7.  Let the fun begin–with some Nerf warfare outside.

Remember that beautiful day you ordered?  Because the weather gods smiled on us, it meant, for the first time ever, that the Nerf battle could take place outside, rather than in the house.  (More on why a Nerf battle belongs at Gingerpalooza here.)

In previous years, the Nerf battle happened organically, after the kids were all hopped up on sugar and had been quietly sitting, making their houses, for a good long time.  We realized this year that it makes much more sense to reverse the order:  To get out some energy (outside–key, key detail in this whole thing) before sitting down to build a lovely house.

boys shooting at each other with nerf guns

Try not to be too appalled or disturbed at the sight of sweet young things toting plastic automatic weapons.  Talk with the other moms about how your darling boy (and girl) were never ever allowed to have toy guns when they were small.  Nod empathetically when they share that it was that way for their sons, too.  Wonder why it is that boys seem genetically coded to turn anything that could, theoretically, be a toy gun, into a toy gun.  Look hard at the dads in the room and consider blaming them (and all of their kind) for all the war in the world.  Before going too far down that dark road, remember that’s it’s Christmas, remember how much you love the men and the sweet boys ambushing each other in the street, smile (wistfully, perhaps) at our flawed human natures, and eat a cookie.

preschooler carrying two plastic toy guns

(Disclaimer:  This took place outside because we live in a place where it’s safe for the kids to play in the street.  One more point for living on a cul-de-sac in the ‘burbs.  If you want a full run-down of why we’re liking our big old split-level in our very suburban neighborhood, you can find that here.)

8.  Build your houses!

Once you do a little bit of rudimentary instruction for any newbies in the bunch, your young builders should be good to go. Plan on them eating as much candy as they put on their houses. Know that the icing you made in step 3 is going to get all over lots of things.  (Tip for the icing:  Use sandwich bags as pastry bags.  Spoon the icing into the corner of a bag, and snip the corner off with scissors.  Twist the top of the bag. I know, more plastic.  Resolve to make up for this in some other way, because this is the easiest, cheapest way we’ve found to dispense mortar.)

Stand back and revel in your kids’ creativity and the amazing ways in which each house reflects its creator.  Do not yell/fuss/nag about the candy/frosting they are consuming and spilling.  One day of sugar will not undo years of good nutrition, and it’s far easier to clean up a candy mess than an emotional one.

mom helping young boy make a gingerbread house

kids at a table building gingerbread houses

young boy putting icing on his gingerbread house

young boy eating icing while building his gingerbread house

teen girl building a gingerbread house

young girl building a gingerbread house

teen girl putting icing on her gingerbread house


teen boy making a goofy face while building a gingerbread house

boy on couch with two weiner dogs

Someone had to supervise the dogs during the construction phase!

9.  Admire the finished houses and create a cool gingerbread village.

gingerbread house with ice cream cone towers

young boy proudly displaying his gingerbread house

gingerbread house with roof detail

row of gingerbread houses

We lined the houses up on a long credenza to make the village.

10.  Don’t forget to light the candles.

For us, the holiday season is mostly about the celebration of light.  As the house darkens–which it will do really, really early–don’t forget to bring in some candle light.

Ran across a post on party architecture recently, which included a survey on the most important party element after the guests.  I was definitely in the minority with my choice of lighting, but I still vote for it.  If the lighting’s wrong, the mood is wrong.  Candles are always good-mood lights.

fireplace mantel with lit candles on it

11.  Eat some real food.

Everyone needs some real food at this point.  Meaning, food that isn’t 98% sugar.

You really can’t do this until the gingerbread construction is done, as you’ll need to sit the kids at the same big table for dinner.  (This is when you’ll be so, so glad you went with the plastic tablecloth. The gingerbread mess will be cleared in maybe 30 seconds, tops.)

The night before, in addition to making cookie dough, you can also make my great-grandma’s spaghetti sauce–from the recipe she brought with her from Croatia when she came to this country as a teen-ager, the one that she and my grandmother made every holiday dinner of my entire childhood.  It’s not some super-secret recipe, so it’s fine to share it here, as my mom sent it to me several years back:

1 lb ground round
4 stalks of celery
2 onions
2 or 3 slices of bacon
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp nutmeg
2 tablespoons dried parsley
1 tsp salt
sprinkle some garlic powder – not sure how much I do – probably about 1/2 a tsp or so
2 8 oz cans tomato sauce
You can also add pieces of roast or stew meat – or Grandma made hers with chicken sometimes too.
You brown the hamburger and meat – grind up the celery, onions and bacon and add to the browned meat along with the spices and let simmer a few minutes.  Then add the 2 tomato sauces plus 2 cans of water and let simmer.  That’s when it starts to smell good!
You don’t need much other than spaghetti–some salad and bread will do it.  It’s also nice if some of the guests bring some other treats.  This year, we had Lisa’s cheese fondue, served in squash gourds (I think that’s what they’re called?).
tray filled with gourds
kids eating dinner at the kids' table

12.  Don’t clean up right after dinner.

Sit and relax with the other grown-ups upstairs while the kids resume their nerf gun war downstairs.  If you’re living in a big ol’ split-level (like we are) be glad that there is a downstairs where you can’t really hear the mayhem going on.two moms chatting by the stove

grown-ups chatting after dinner

13.  But do clean up before going to bed.

You’ll be so glad that you did in the morning.

table full of pots and bowls air-drying

14.  Take a breather and bask in the glow of it all.

mom, teen-age daughter, and dog relaxing in chair

Why do we throw our gingerbread party every year?  We do it to make memories.  We do it to build bonds.  We do it because it’s the one thing we do the whole holiday season that feels a lot like Christmas felt when I was a kid:  noisy and colorful and fun, a day fueled by sugar and laughter and shared history.

Our kids have been building houses together for five years now.  I hope we’ll get at least 5 more, before the oldest are off to college and getting them together will get a whole lot more complicated.  They don’t fully appreciate it now, because they haven’t lived long enough to understand what it is we’re giving them and to know that all things, eventually, pass. I imagine that our gingerbread party is for them like my grandparents’ gatherings were for me:  Something I thought would always be there.

When our kids are grown and their childhoods are over and the gingerbread party is something in our pasts, I hope they’ll remember these days of graham cracker houses and nerf wars as fondly as I remember my childhood days with my cousins.  And that they’ll build the same kind of memories for their families.

father with daughter on lap

This is Luci only two years ago. Can you recognize the lovely young lady she is now in the photos above? It goes that fast.

How about you?

Have any great tips for throwing a holiday party?  What traditions are most important to you?  We’d love to learn what works for you.

Gingerbread house tree ornament