The fragrance of gingerbread — cinnamon, molasses and ginger — teases visitors before they even step into the room.
Then the twinkly lights, white paper stars and that familiar late-afternoon winter-blue sky welcome guests who, in a nanosecond, step into a neighborhood of brightly festooned gingerbread structures.
In that instant, we are all 5 years old, besotted by the whimsical, the colorful and, well, let’s be honest, all that candy.
Where do we look first? Such is the dilemma of the ever-charming Gingerbread Wonderland, now in its fifth year at Norway House (913 E. Franklin Av., Mpls.) and open until Jan. 5.
If your attention is drawn to the biggest gingerbread building in the room, that would be the St. Paul Cathedral, towering over the other structures. If it’s the most colorful, that’s likely to be the very classic Candy Castle.
The most familiar? Split Rock Lighthouse (two of them!). The smallest? The tiny pies and vegetables in the CG Farm Fresh Produce stand (the corn on the cob and heads of cabbage are particularly delightful).
The whimsical? That’s a tough call, with choices including a two-level ice fishing tableau, or a scene from the movie “Up,” with its balloon hitched to the house (and it’s really all edible!).
Then again, it may be the outhouse with a half-pretzel for a toilet seat, or the gingerbread people browsing vinyl at the Electric Fetus. There’s a fjord horse substituting for a camel in the Norwegian Nativity scene. Or the snow children made of marshmallows. Surely those count, too.
The display exudes sensory overload, with 180 gingerbread structures, a significant increase from 50 the first year. That dramatic uptick may be due to the popularity of “The Great British Baking Show” on TV, said Christina Carlson, executive director of Norway House. “They really stepped it up this year.”
The oldest buildings in the Twin Cities are featured in edible form: the Ard Godfrey House (1848) in Minneapolis and the Waldmann site in St. Paul (1857). But that’s only a starter. Landmarks abound from around the area: the Stone Arch Bridge, Dayton’s, Matt’s Bar (with tiny burgers visible inside), Sharing & Caring Hands, Hubbard Broadcasting, Nordic Waffles, a White Castle from St. Paul.
And then there are the international displays: a city scene from Bergen, Norway, the Oslo Opera House, various Vikings ships (the most inventive using baked fettuccine as oars).
The most magnificent display is not a building at all, but a violin and bow, created by Carolina Downs and based on an 1891 fiddle from Gunnar O. Helland of Bø, Telemark, Norway. His son Gunnar H. Helland later moved to Minneapolis and built violins. The remarkable creation took six days to complete.
For some, the building process came from practiced hands. For others, it was an eye-opener.
“Perhaps what comes most as a surprise is how difficult it is,” wrote Becky Wahlquist and John Morrison on their entry form. “The roof collapsed 3 times! Does the salt on pretzel sticks react to the icing? Before deciding the size of your structure make sure to find a box to transport it first. We didn’t. This was a very good learning experiment.”
Another newbie, who we will simply call Anonymous, wrote of her experience, “It was my first and possibly my last. My royal icing was too thin alone to hold things together; the other was too big and everything collapsed. Yikes. Live and learn.”
Cody Johnson had a tale of constructing two displays with his 6 year old. “Our original was being stored in the oven, which got destroyed when we preheated the oven.” Ah, yes, the old stick-it-in-the oven-for-safety flaw.
Kristina Brust, who built the Stone Arch Bridge replica over 10 hours, summed up the experience of many of the builders: “If at first you don’t succeed, try again!”
With so many exquisite displays, there had to be a competition for the best. And there was, with 10 categories that depicted many structures, big and small. The judges who faced this veritable Candyland were Nancy Ngo, Sue Zelickson and me.
Have your own favorites? Visitors can vote for a People’s Choice award through Dec. 22.
Best of Minnesota: St. Paul Cathedral, by Maggie Karschnia.
Best kids’ display (ages 9-16): Ice Fishing, by Eloise and Henry Brandt.
Best kids’ display (age 8 and under): Back to the Future Winter Wonderland, by Penelope Lindberg.
Most creative: Up, Adventure in Norway, which included a “book of travel photos,” by Caitlynn Decker and Amy Decker.
Best amateur: Hardanger Fiddle and Bow, by Carolina Downs.
Best professional: Glensheen Mansion, by Steph Kissner and Kelley Loso of Sweet Retreat.
Most coeslig (cozy): Log Cabin, by Kathleen Devaney.
Most whimsical: “Home Sweet Home,” by Annette Korolchuk.
Best international: Bryggen in Bergen, by the Daughters of Norway.
Best classic: Candy Castle, by Jean Dorland and Hannah Grossman.