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Chef Mesnier's gingerbread house in 1993 was titled the "House of Socks," and featured marzipan sculptures of the first family's famous cat.

William J. Clinton Presidential Library and Museum/NARA

The holiday season at the White House is celebrated with an array of annual traditions, glittering holiday décor, fresh pine, and sugary treats for all to enjoy. One of the sweetest holiday traditions is the official White House gingerbread. Since the late 1960s, pastry chefs have baked, constructed, and decorated a gingerbread house for the enjoyment of the First Family, the American people, and White House holiday visitors. Displayed on a 1902 mahogany eagle console table in front of a gilded pier mirror in the State Dining Room, the official gingerbread house became an annual Christmas tradition during the Nixon administration.

A Tradition of Gingerbread

A recipe for soft gingerbread appeared in the earliest American cookbooks with the main component molasses, an ingredient that President John Adams once remarked was essential to American independence. First Ladies Martha Washington and Dolley Madison both had their own soft gingerbread cake recipes. President Ulysses S. Grant and First Lady Julia Grant hired African American cook Lucy Latimer based on her savory hot gingerbread. Latimer stayed on at the White House baking cakes for Presidents Rutherford B. Hayes, James A. Garfield and Chester A. Arthur. President Grover Cleveland’s favorite dessert became known as “Cleveland gingerbread,” made with buttermilk, molasses, and baking soda with a sweet and sticky topping that included seasonal nuts.

First Lady Pat Nixon and daughter Julie examine the intricate candy decorations on the 1971 A-frame gingerbread house.

Richard Nixon Foundation

In 1929, First Lady Lou Hoover decorated a Christmas tree in the Entrance Hall with gingerbread men and horses. Lady Bird Johnson also decorated the official Blue Room Christmas tree in 1965 with gingerbread cookies in the form of Santa Claus, snowmen, camels, teddy bears, dolls and milkmaids. In 1968, a gingerbread cottage was gifted to the White House and displayed in the State Dining Room. The following year, Assistant Executive Chef Hans Raffert added the first traditional German A-frame gingerbread house design for the Nixons as part of their holiday decorations.

For the millennium celebration, Chef Mesnier posed with First Lady Hillary Clinton with his gingerbread landscape of historic buildings and national monuments in the nation's capital, including the White House, the Jefferson Memorial and Mount Vernon.

Courtesy of Jennifer B. Pickens/Collection of Roland Mesnier

Changing Gingerbread House Styles

Beginning in 1969, White House Assistant Executive Chef Hans Raffert built increasingly larger and more elaborate gingerbread houses based on a traditional German-style A-frame design. With each succeeding year the houses were adorned with more and more candy canes, gingerbread men, hard candies, jellybeans and reindeer. In 1992 Executive Pastry Chef Roland Mesnier assumed responsibility for designing and constructing the annual gingerbread house and expanded the original concept to encompass a village of five gingerbread houses, decorated with hundreds of marzipan figures and spun sugar adornments. In 1993 he created a nearly 100-pound gingerbread house replica of the White House designed to scale.

In keeping with the 2002 theme of "All Creatures Great and Small," the porches and grounds of the White House gingerbread house were filled with marzipan figures of past and present pets of the first families.

Courtesy of Jennifer B. Pickens/George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum/NARA

Since then, White House gingerbread houses have highlighted themes such as Santa’s North Pole workshop, a winter wonderland castle, treasured monuments of the Nation’s Capital, and views of historic nineteenth- and twentieth-century White Houses. In recent years, the gingerbread houses have contributed to the overall themes selected by our first ladies for the official Christmas tree and the mansion’s decorations, a tradition that began in 1961 with First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy. Prominent examples were Chef Mesnier’s gingerbread versions of the White House with the South Lawn filled with hand-modeled marzipan presidential pets as part of the 2002 Christmas theme, “All Creatures Great and Small.” For the 2003 “Season of Stories” he created marzipan figures of characters from popular children’s stories that populated the Truman Balcony, South Porch and South Lawn.

Traditions of White House Holiday Décor

The White House observance of Christmas before the twentieth century was not a public event. First families decorated the mantels modestly with greens and privately celebrated the Yuletide with family and friends. The first known White House Christmas tree, decorated with candles and toys, was placed in the Second Floor Oval Room, then used as a library and family parlor, in 1889 for President Benjamin Harrison and his family. Many first families after the Harrisons set up Christmas trees upstairs in the Residence, but it wasn't until 1912 when the Taft family placed the first known tree in the Blue Room on the State Floor for their visiting relatives. Since then, successive first families have added more and more trees to the State Floor. First Lady Grace Coolidge had trees in the Blue Room and East Room on a number of occasions, and her husband, President Calvin Coolidge was the first chief executive to preside over the National Christmas tree lighting ceremony on the Ellipse in 1923. The Hoovers usually had at least two trees, one upstairs in the Residence and another large tree in the East Room -- this became a consistent tradition as the East Room was the ideal space for large holiday parties and receptions.

In 1961, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy began the tradition of selecting a theme for the official White House Christmas tree.

Robert Knudsen, White House/John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum/NARA

In 1961, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy began the tradition of selecting a theme for the official Blue Room White House Christmas tree decorated with ornamental toys, birds and angels modeled after Petr Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker Suite.” Since that time each first lady has chosen a Christmas tree theme and decorated the mansion with the assistance of her staff and a team of volunteers. At times certain decorations have been especially popular with visitors and returned each year such as the Cranberry tree in the Red Room that made its first appearance in 1975. For more than 50 years, White House holiday themes have included largely nostalgic or traditional themes, such as the Nutcracker Suite, early America, American Flowers, an old-fashioned traditional Christmas, antique toys, Mother Goose, family literacy, the Twelve Days of Christmas, Home for the Holidays, and Simple Gifts. The elegant White House mantels throughout the Ground Level and State Floor become the canvas of some of the most creative and beautiful decorations shaped each year by the theme of the first lady’s holiday décor.

Cranberry Tree first made an appearance in the Red Room of the White House in 1975.

Courtesy of Jennifer B. Pickens

This article was originally published November 30, 2015

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