Baking up Memories

By: Gabby Jackson


With the smell of gingerbread and buttermilk frosting wafting through the air, it could only mean one thing. The annual decorating of the Griffin Family Gingerbread Houses. The event was held on December 1st in Des Moines, IA. This tradition began in 1993 with the matriarch of the family, Rosemary Griffin, who wanted a way to bring her family of six children and numerous grandchildren and great grandchildren together before Christmas. 

Figure 1 (Rosemary Griffin, the creator of the tradition)
Figure 1 (Rosemary Griffin, the creator of the tradition)

This tradition has spanned over 25 years and every year is full of surprises and new faces. Every year twelve or more family members and friends would squeeze around Rosemary’s kitchen table, normally meant for six people, while they decorated their houses. 

Figure 2 (This is the first year of the gingerbread houses, taken in 1993)
Figure 2 (This is the first year of the gingerbread houses, taken in 1993)
Figure 3 (In 1999, more grandchildren started to join in on the tradition)
Figure 3 (In 1999, more grandchildren started to join in on the tradition)
Figure 4 (2001, more of the family was able to participate)
Figure 4 (2001, more of the family was able to participate)

The houses are constructed from scratch and built the night before in preparation for decorating the following day.

She first noticed an advertisement in a local “Better Homes and Gardens” magazine. But Rosemary had her own twist. She decided to hand-make everything instead of buying the pre-built gingerbread houses. She went out and purchased green molds to create the roofs and walls, but unfortunately she put the molds in the oven and they melted so Jimmy Griffin, one of her sons, welded new molds out of metal.

Once the molds were constructed Rosemary mixed the gingerbread packets into the mixer, rolled out the dough to cut into roofs and walls and, then placed them into the oven to bake. The molds are used to help ensure that the roofs and walls are the correct size. 

The roofs are baked first because they use the most amount of dough. After they have cooled, the frosting is made and put into icing tubes to fuse together the walls and roof. 

Figure 5 (These tubes are used to frost the roofs and walls together)
Figure 5 (These tubes are used to frost the roofs and walls together)

Up until a few years ago, Rosemary and her daughter, Kathy Dowell, would take up the task of making and building the gingerbread houses at Rosemary’s home, but once she was diagnosed with dementia, she could no longer bake like she used to. After being diagnosed, the family decided to bring the tradition to her, and for the next few years the gingerbread house event was held at the nursing home she was residing in. 

Rosemary unfortunately passed away in 2017, and her absence was felt throughout the family, but despite this devastating loss the family came to the conclusion to continue the tradition.

“We decided to make it all homemade because it's what Mom would have wanted, even though it takes longer to build, it brings us all together for a few days before the holidays,” said Jimmy Griffin.

Figure 6 (The children of Rosemary gather the night before to build the gingerbread houses)
Figure 6 (The children of Rosemary gather the night before to build the gingerbread houses)

This year 39 houses were built and ready for decoration. The following day the Jackson’s residence was anything but quiet, as family and friends gathered to create their own personal masterpieces.

Figure 7 (Family and friends can be seen hard at work decorating their houses)
Figure 7 (Family and friends can be seen hard at work decorating their houses)

Alex Markham, one of the many grandchildren has been apart of this tradition for years.

“Gingerbread decorating has always been one of my favorite holiday activities. Every year I have a new creation,” said Alex.

Figure 8 (Alex Markham concentrating on decorating his house)
Figure 8 (Alex Markham concentrating on decorating his house)

With the wide array of candy, no two designs were the same, and each one showcased everyone’s individuality and personal touch.

Figure 9 (Hailey Griffin chose to add red hots to his house)
Figure 9 (Hailey Griffin chose to add red hots to his house)
Figure 10 (One of the more popular decorated houses was Julie Lewis’)
Figure 10 (One of the more popular decorated houses was Julie Lewis’)

Once all the festivities were done, the siblings gathered around and shared laughs and memories from years past.

The tradition comes full circle during the fourth of July when the family gathers at Kathy’s house in Indianola for a giant fire pit and setting the gingerbread houses on fire.

Figure 11 (The fire pit consumes the gingerbread house)
Figure 11 (The fire pit consumes the gingerbread house)

“This tradition wouldn’t be possible without the kids every year and it always reminds me of my Mom. Nothing was more important to her than family,” said Maureen Jackson.