Designing and building an award-winning gingerbread house combines the skills of baker, architect and visionary. For a family-designed gingerbread house, it takes many hands—both adult and child-size to construct the dream home. During this season of sugar plum fairies and other food-related enchantment, it’s the perfect time to blend spices and flour to create a cookie palace. And what better way to honor this annual confectionery tradition than by participating in the Port of Bellinham Gingerbread House Contest?

Daniele O'Connell and team mate Darcy Walters were proud winners of the 2016 gingerbread house contest. Photo credit: Darcy Walters.
Daniele O’Connell and team mate Darcy Walters were proud winners of the 2015 gingerbread house contest. Photo credit: Darcy Walters.

The 21st annual Holiday Port Gingerbread House Contest hosted by the Port of Bellingham brings together sugar plum dreamers, gingerbread architects and bakers into one place—the Bellingham Cruise Terminal (355 Harris Avenue). The contest will be held on December 2 – 4 from 11:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Armed with this year’s theme, “Northwest Adventure,” contestants ranging from under five years old to sixty-five years old compete for prizes in 16 categories.

The O’Connell Team won First Prize for the Family category during the 2015 contest. Daniele, her husband Shane, her two boys, Alex (11) and Ryan (6), and friends Darcy and Colin Walters constructed Snoopy’s Merry Christmas to embody the contest theme of “Home Sweet Home.”

The O’Connell team possesses a creative genius with edible structures. The team has taken home prizes three years in a row.

“That was the third year we entered the gingerbread house contest,” Daniele O’Connell recalls of the team’s Snoopy masterpiece. “The first year we won third place in the Family Category, the second year we placed second and in 2015, we placed first.”

Snoopy's Merry Christmas grabbed First Place for the Family Category in 2015. Photo credit: Darcy Walters.
Snoopy’s Merry Christmas grabbed First Place for the Family Category in 2015. Photo credit: Darcy Walters.

While the team didn’t rely on sketches for their design, they chose a combination of improvisation and meticulous planning. “It evolves as we are working on it,” Daniele describes of the award-winning team’s process. “We have an idea and a list of materials and we just start building. We use the internet to help build the characters so they are recognizable.”

They arrived at the Snoopy Christmas theme and then used their collective imagination from there. “We start about a month before, brainstorming ideas and thinking about the materials we need to buy,” O’Connell says. “I usually start scouring Deals Only and Grocery Outlet for candy and decorations.”

Gingerbread House competitors head to the grocery stores and outlets to stock up on ginger, flour and an assortment of candies. The O’Connell team was no exception. O’Connell says that last year’s dream home took “literally tons of sugar, meringue powder, Rice Crispy, marshmallows, fondant, coconut, ginger, grahams, red licorice, candy, candy and candy! My house smelled like a Christmas wonderland when we were in the process of making that creation.”

Tons of flour, Rice Crispies, fondant and sugar went into the construction of this winning house. Photo credit: Darcy Walters.
Tons of flour, Rice Crispies, fondant and sugar went into the construction of this winning house. Photo credit: Darcy Walters.

As with constructing any home, big or small, one can expect mishaps to occur. The O’Connell’s near-disaster began in their kitchen. “We began building this huge wreath on the backside of Snoopy’s house and quickly realized it was too heavy for the structure,” O’Connell says. “We tried to reinforce it, but when I got up the next day that part of the house had fallen onto the floor of my kitchen. Since the houses were due at the port the next day I spent half my day rebuilding and repairing – with a much smaller and lighter wreath!”

Next came transportation which was half the fun. The family loaded the fragile structure into their van. “It’s probably the most stressful part of the process, getting it safely and in one piece to the port,” O’Connell reminisces. “The worst part of the drive is the bumpy old cobblestone street leading to the ferry terminal.”

Colin Walters and Alex O'Connell inspect the winners' work. Photo credit: Darcy Walters.
Colin Walters and Alex O’Connell inspect their work. Photo credit: Darcy Walters.

The O’Connell Team successfully arrived at the Bellingham Cruise Terminal and their gingerbread house took up residence among blocks of gingerbread castles, barns, cottages, mansions, trains and chocolate factories. The rest is history.

While the O’Connell Team is sitting out this year’s contest, O’Connell reminds the contestants to have fun. The popular annual event draws 100 gingerbread house contestants and offers eye-candy for local photographers and foodies alike. It’s another quirky and fun event offered in the City of Subdued Excitement during the darkest days of the year.

The Holiday Port Gingerbread House Contest is part of the Port’s Holiday Festival which begins on Friday, December 2 and runs from 11:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. through Sunday, November 4. Other activities include performances by local choirs, bands and dance troupes. In addition, the good folks at the port host tours of the Alaska Ferry, horse-drawn wagon rides, art activities for children and a visit from Santa Claus.

Daniele O'Connell proudly displays her team's gingerbread house at the competition. Photo credit: Darcy Walters.
Daniele O’Connell proudly displays her team’s gingerbread house at the competition. Photo credit: Darcy Walters.

On Sunday, the port hosts a silent auction of the edible structures with proceeds donated to the Home Port Learning Center, an alternative school for at-risk youth of Whatcom County.

Port of Bellingham Holiday Festival
Bellingham Cruise Terminal
355 Harris Street in Fairhaven
December 2 – 4
11:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.

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