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Liam Rodee, age 9, with his creation at the TAUNY workshop. Photo: Julie Grant
Liam Rodee, age 9, with his creation at the TAUNY workshop. Photo: Julie Grant

Sweet holiday tradition has scary roots

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Over the past decade or so making gingerbread houses has gained popularity in the North Country, in large part because of a workshop and contest organized by TAUNY. Making a candy house brings the some families together every year for something deliciously fun. But the history of candy houses also has some darker roots.

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Julie Grant
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The room smells fantastic, sweet and spicy. About 15 gingerbread houses are under construction.

Kids and adults are hard at work, layering on the candy and snacks. Some use sugar wafers for roof shingles, others create gumdrop walkways, or place gingerbread men so they peek out the pretzel windows. 

Amelia Rodee is sitting on her grandmother’s lap. They just finished decorating their house, and they're already talking about eating it. Grandmother Betty Connelly expects that like last year, the house won’t make it to Christmas, and says she loves doing it every year: "It's such a wonderful event, we come together as a family, and it's just a tradition now."

At the TAUNY gingerbread house workshop, there's almost no limit to the candy available for decorating.  Photo: Julie Grant
At the TAUNY gingerbread house workshop, there's almost no limit to the candy available for decorating. Photo: Julie Grant
Americans first started making houses out of cake and candy in the early 1900s, after the Grimm Brothers fairy tale Hansel and Gretel made its way here from Germany. Amelia Rodee is eight years old, and she's read it many times. She calls it "silly."

Murder and mayhem in the forest

But if you remember Hansel and Gretel as a sweet childhood story, look again. German literature professor Maria Tartar chairs the program in Folklore and Mythology at Harvard University. She's written extensively about the story of Hansel and Gretel.

In the original version, the family is starving, and the parents abandon their children, Hansel and Gretel, in the woods. "So they have had nothing to eat. There is literally nothing in the house. And that's why they are sent into the forest, because the parents have no food left."

Children had a sweet time, working with cookies and candy on their houses. Photo: Julie Grant
Children had a sweet time, working with cookies and candy on their houses. Photo: Julie Grant
The children wander around for days, with only berries to eat. And then, there it is: the house. Hansel grabs a piece of the roof. Gretel takes out a window of spun sugar to eat. 

The story has been retold many times in modern day contexts, including in an opera by Engelbert Humperdinck, and in cartoons.

The witch who owns the house appears. At first, the witch provides two comfortable beds, and a delicious meal. "And", Maria Tartar says, "they get milk and pancakes and nuts and all kinds of wonderful things. So, there is comfort. But where there's comfort in fairy tales, danger lurks. So you have this great collision of comfort, beauty, satisfaction. All these good things mingled with horror."

The horror comes when the witch puts Hansel in a cage. She intends to fatten him up so she can eat him. But the kids use their wits. Every day when the witch checks Hansel’s finger to see if he's ready to be eaten, he hands her an old chicken bone, so he still seems scrawny. Then, at the crucial moment, Gretel shoves the witch into the oven. The witch burns up, and the children escape.

Maria Tartar says fairy tales can teach children about dark aspects of the world: people sometimes go hungry and treat each other badly. But it also shows them that they can handle it.

"It did show you no matter how scary things are you can get out of those woods."

Creativity abounds at TAUNY's gingerbread workshop. It's all sweets and fun, with none of the dark overtones of Hanzel and Gretel. Photo: Julie Grant
Creativity abounds at TAUNY's gingerbread workshop. It's all sweets and fun, with none of the dark overtones of Hanzel and Gretel. Photo: Julie Grant
Tartar says the children grow up in this tale. In the end, they have killed the witch, and returned to a father who abandoned them in the woods. Their mother has died while they were away. 

Tartar says this may seem gruesome, but fairy tales like this can help children work out confusing feelings about their parents and the world around them.

Jack Zipes is professor emeritus at the University of Minnesota, and author of several books about the Grimm fairy tales, including Hansel and Gretel. He says fairy tales offer an alternate world.

"It's a world in which some sort of social justice can be attained. So we turn to fantasy worlds, to fairy tale worlds, to step back from our own society which really is in reality gruesome, and can be draining and difficult, and we can at least gain some hope by reading these tales, and seeing these tales."

"The comforting spot in an otherwise scary world"

Back at the gingerbread workshop in Canton, there’s no talk about the murder and mayhem of Hansel and Gretel. Here, it’s all about the candy, and creating a fantastic house. The folks who work at TAUNY are putting finishing touches on theirs. TAUNY director Jill Breit says there's a reason people are drawn to making these year after year.

"I think gingerbread houses are actually the comforting spot in what is otherwise a scary world. It's home, it's domesticity. And the fantasy of making a gingerbread house, is you can let loose your inner creative self to build a house you couldn't build in the real world."

The fairy tale experts are impressed with the popularity of gingerbread house making in the North Country. It's bucking a cultural trend. They say people in upstate New York are celebrating families and children. That's not what Hansel and Gretel is about. But the North Country has turned the tale upside down, and made something good out of it.

Intrigued by the mention of Engelbert Humperdinck's opera? You can hear some in the audio version of this story—click on "Listen with NCPR Player", above.

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