With their whimsical style, sparkly, sugar-coated details and warm, spicy aroma, gingerbread houses are as much a part of the holiday season as trees, menorahs and carolers.
The tradition is an old one: Gingerbread houses first appeared in Germany during the 16th century, when master bakers created ornate works of art from the spicy cookies. The trend of gingerbread art soon spread to other countries across Europe. But it was the Grimm Brothers’ 19th-century tale of Hansel and Gretel, who stumble upon a house in the forest made entirely of cookies and candy that propelled gingerbread houses into popular culture.
German immigrants brought the custom to the United States and today, villages constructed from gingerbread and other sweets are a much-loved holiday tradition. Here are a few visit-worthy gingerbread villages around the Carolinas.
Omni Grove Park Inn
On Nov. 19, the Omni Grove Park Inn kicks off the public display of entrants in the 22nd Annual National Gingerbread House Competition. This grand holiday tradition is the largest competition of its kind, drawing hundreds of ornate castles, artistic landscapes, fanciful animals and sweet cottages, all adorned in icing and candy. Visitors can view the elaborate houses, which are spread around the main level of the resort, until Jan. 1.
Each of the intricate designs really is good enough to eat, too: Each must be constructed entirely of edible materials, of which 75 percent must be gingerbread. This year’s judges include a curator from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and one of the authors of the book Making Great Gingerbread Houses.
There is no charge to view the display, however, there is a $10 parking charge, half of which will be given to local charity organizations. In 2013, the Omni Grove Park Inn was able to donate $64,000 to local nonprofits.
In addition to the gingerbread houses, the Omni Grove Park Inn will resemble a holiday fantasy with more than 80 decorated trees glittering around the resort and massive wreaths decorating the signature stone fireplaces in the lobby. Beginning Dec. 1, lunchtime visitors get a bonus: each day around 1pm, staff members meet in the lobby to sing carols. Everyone is welcome to join in.
George and Edith Vanderbilt opened Biltmore House, their 35-bedroom manse, for the first time to family and friends on Christmas Eve 1895. Those Victorian holiday traditions continue today. Each year, Biltmore House is filled with Christmas trees, the centerpiece being the Banquet Hall’s 35-foot Fraser fir, which is delivered by Santa himself via horse-drawn carriage. The house sparkles with 30,000 twinkling lights, hundreds of candles, thousands of ornaments, and miles of garland. Outside, a 55-foot Norway spruce glows in a blanket of more than 45,000 lights and the front lawn is adorned with 300 hand-lit luminaries.
Two grand-scale gingerbread houses are also on display, one for the Biltmore House, where it can be seen in the kitchen, and one for the Inn, where it highlights the lobby décor. Created each year by a team of in-house pastry chefs, the architectural marvels are exact replicas down to the smallest details, including chimneys that look as if they were constructed of stone and tiny green wreaths around the necks of the two lions that guard the doors to America’s largest home. In 2012, the chefs used ten pounds of gingerbread for the house, three pounds of dried herbs for the lawn and more than two pounds of poppy seeds for the driveway. The trees were made from ice cream cones!
Pinehurst’s charming gingerbread village opens on Nov. 26 at the resorts historic Carolina Hotel. Consisting of sugar-filled replicas of the Carolina Hotel, the Village Chapel and four residential homes within Pinehurst, the work also includes a miniature train that circles the town. The month-long project takes a team of 13 pastry chefs, 150 pounds of powdered sugar and three cups of green food coloring.
Holiday decor, which includes well over 1,000 poinsettias and almost a mile and a half of ribbon, wraps the resort in holiday cheer.
Beginning Thanksgiving Day, seven sweet holiday scenes will transform the lobby of The Ritz-Carlton into a winter wonderland. A candy-cane colored red Santa sleigh, hand-sculpted from pure sugar and pulled by two giant chocolate reindeer, welcomes visitors in to the lobby. The sleigh will serve as a drop-off point for guests wishing to leave teddy bears to be donated to the city’s Levine Children’s Hospital.
Inside the hotel will showcase the world’s largest croquembouche pastry tree, constructed from cream puffs and caramel syrup – standing ten feet in edible height. Also included is an eight foot tall holiday tree made of 8,000 hand-crafted French macarons; a whimsical ten foot tall gingerbread house offering its own charming clock tower; two glistening, eight foot tall upside-down trees suspended from the lobby ceiling; and a 17-foot green holiday tree constructed completely from 900 recycled green plastic bottles.
For guests who find themselves hungry after seeing all those sweets, the hotel has created its own Candy-Lane, which will provide displays, demonstrations and tastes of creative hot chocolates, flavored marshmallows, peppermint candy gelato and other holiday temptations.
The Ballantyne Hotel & Lodge
Gingerbread Lane, the name of Ballantyne’s annual gingerbread competition, invites more than 30 bakers to submit their creations, which are on display at the hotel from Dec. 11 through Dec. 28.
Entries aren’t limited to houses–bakers can create any scene or structure they desire, as long as it’s completely edible. Although the official judging takes place on Dec. 10 at 3:00 p.m., visitors may vote on their favorite entries with $1 minimum donation per vote. The People’s Choice winner will be named at the end of the season. All proceeds will benefit a local nonprofit organization. Enjoy the scene with a cup of hot chocolate in hand–the resort is offering the rich, silky treat throughout December–or relax during holiday afternoon tea, which is served in the lobby.