The elegant mansions of Summit Avenue, wisps of icing smoke gently curling from their chimneys. The Stone Arch Bridge, festooned with frosting snowdrifts. Spoonbridge and Cherry, a bright-red gumdrop standing in for one of the title roles. And the sweet smell of gingerbread wafting through the air as an electric train weaves through the edible landscape.
This is the scene at Norway House’s Gingerbread Wonderland, which, with a record 11,000 visitors last year, has quickly become a Twin Cities holiday tradition.
Gingerbread Wonderland is more than a festive diversion: It’s a way to highlight modern Norway. “We’re bringing a contemporary Norwegian tradition to the Twin Cities,” says Norway House executive director Christina Carleton, a Norwegian born and raised. That’s been the organization’s goal since 2004: connecting the United States to the Scandinavian country through arts, business, and culture.
The annual tradition of gingerbread towns, or pepperkakebyen, is relatively new, originating in the city of Bergen in 1991 before spreading to several other Norwegian cities. Houses, cars, trains, and local landmarks are all recreated in gingerbread, with over 2,000 structures making up the cookie Bergen.
Gingerbread Wonderland is even newer—it debuted in 2015—and occupies a somewhat smaller footprint: Last year’s installation featured about 80 structures. Creations include elaborate creations by professional chefs—past ginger-buildings have included U.S. Bank Stadium, Paisley Park, First Avenue, and Target Center—plus dozens of houses by skilled amateur bakers, kids, and gingerbread newbies alike.
“More families and kids are getting involved,” says Max Stevenson, director of exhibitions and programming. “It makes it more cozy to see the kids’ houses next to the huge houses from professional bakers. It’s fun to see what everyone in the community comes up with.”
“This is a community event,” Carleton emphasizes. “We want to involve as many people as possible.”
That’s why this year, volunteers baked enough gingerbread to make 60 ready-to-assemble kits complete with candy and an icing recipe. The kits were distributed for free, allowing people to participate in the exhibit even if they’re short on time or money.
Thanks to that focus on outreach, Gingerbread Wonderland showcases the Twin Cities’ cultural diversity in addition to Nordic traditions. Last year, a Vietnamese chef created a gingerbread Buddhist temple, and other structures included a mosque and the Ordway Japanese Garden at Como Park Zoo & Conservatory. Many nontraditional gingerbread houses come from kids, like last year’s Candy Land-themed diorama. Stevenson is excited about this year’s possibilities: “I just got an email about kids who want to make structures from video games!”
What is it about gingerbread that has such an appeal across cultures and generations? “[As a Norwegian], it seems very natural to me... it smells delicious, it’s very koselig,” says Carleton, using a Norwegian term that loosely translates to “cozy,” much like the Danish concept of hygge.
While there is a competitive component—judges select the Best of Minneapolis, Best of St. Paul, Best Kids’, and Most Creative—the most rewarding part of Gingerbread Wonderland for many is the creative process.
“I didn’t know we would get so obsessed with it!” says Liz Mullen, executive chef at Chowgirls Killer Catering. For last year’s exhibit, the 10-person Chowgirls team re-created the company’s headquarters in gingerbread, utilizing their actual blueprints and testing numerous recipes for structural integrity. “It becomes a grade-school art project on steroids.”
“We enjoy doing it every single year,” adds Sweet Retreat Cupcake Boutique owner Stephanie Kissner, whose prior contributions have included Target Center and the Mill City Museum. “It’s always a great challenge to look at the building and figure out how to simplify it but still make it recognizable.”
While the scale of these professional creations is impressive, most of Gingerbread Wonderland is crafted by home bakers. Some of last year’s attendees were even inspired to go home and build a gingerbread house of their own to add to the exhibit.
“It’s a lot of fun, and it’s easier than you would think,” says Kissner. “It’s a fun family activity; the parents can build the house and the kids can decorate. Half the fun is decorating it, everything from just putting candy on it to doing more elaborate piping.”
Mullen offers some tips for aspiring gingerbread architects: Start smaller, rather than opting for a tall structure. You want your icing to be the right consistency, and you want a gingerbread recipe that won’t spread out too much as it bakes. (“And remember that you can make a crappy one but really decorate it—there’s a lot of stuff you can cover up with fake snow!”)
This year’s Gingerbread Wonderland is expected to set attendance records and will include the Bakken Museum, the St. Paul Hotel, and the Basilica of Saint Mary. Event sponsor and travel company Borton Overseas is commissioning a six-foot-by-three-foot gingerbread feature incorporating their trip destinations.
Also new this year? A collaboration with the nearby Franklin Library. The Norway House crew built a gingerbread house that spent a week on display among the books, and patrons were invited to decorate it before it made the return journey to join the Gingerbread Wonderland exhibit.
Mullen is already looking forward to this year’s exhibit, likening it to her childhood tradition of visiting Santaland at Macy’s: “I love bringing my kids there and seeing all of them—I’m always amazed every time I go there. It’s amazing what people can do.”
“For kids, there’s excitement about the candy, and for adults, there’s nostalgia,” Stevenson adds. “It’s a shared memory. It allows the imagination to have fun—it’s about play.”