A sweet tradition to brighten others’ holiday
Making gingerbread houses for others has been an annual tradition for West Harwich resident Pat Taylor for over 40 years.
“I started doing it when my daughter was little,” Taylor said. “We were living up in New Hampshire and we didn’t have a lot of money to spend for Christmas, so we decided to make a gingerbread house. She had a good time with it so we began to expand. We would do two or three extra and bring them up to the pediatric ward at the hospital.”
When Taylor moved to the Cape 37 years ago she found local groups to donate her houses to, including a program for kids with cancer, Military Family Outreach Cape Cod, Safe Harbor, and patients cared for by the Visiting Nurse Association of Cape Cod.
“The VNA staff were great to my mother when she was sick,” Taylor said. “When she came home from the hospital they were there to keep track of her. When she needed hospice care, they made sure there was always somebody there.”
Taylor’s mother loved Christmas and enjoyed helping with the gingerbread houses. Her job was to unwrap all the candy. Taylor approached the VNA about donating the holiday treats and they were thrilled to say yes.
“At any given time, we have 1,500 patients on our census, so my solicitation to the nurses was scout your group of patients to see who might need a booster shot for the holidays,” said Jeanne Sarnosky, Director of Marketing, Provider and Community Relations at the VNA.
“Maybe they are all alone or can’t get together with their families for Christmas or maybe their spouse just died. We have one pediatric patient who is a five year old who has just been diagnosed with cancer recurrence, so they could definitely use a boost. He will love having this little gingerbread house.”
Sarnosky said that one older gentleman last year loved his little house so much he kept it until June. Another man said it was the only holiday decoration he had.
“Pat Taylor and her team, through their generosity and talent, have enabled VNA staff to bring a little holiday joy into homes that might not otherwise see it,” she said. “We are incredibly grateful for all she has done for our staff to bring that joy and for the patients who experience it.”
For years Taylor made the gingerbread houses at her house, which only fit about six volunteers at a time. Last year Deb Merrill, owner of Castaways Restaurant, offered her restaurant dining room on a Monday night when they were closed. It was so successful that Merrill did the same this year.
Taylor said she will make about 100 houses this year. She bakes and assembles all the houses at her house. Her secret to a perfect gingerbread structure: patience.
“You really have to take your time with it,” she said. “It takes three days before its ready to decorate. You mix the dough one day and refrigerate it overnight. You bake it the next day and let it sit out overnight and then you assemble it and let it sit overnight. Then you are ready to decorate.”
Recently about 30 “elves” joined her at Castaways Restaurant in South Harwich for a very sweet holiday custom of helping Taylor decorate the dozens of holiday houses she gives away. Every place setting at the tables and booths in Castaways had pre-constructed houses ready to be decorated. One large table was filled to overflowing with candy, cookies, chewing gum and other decorations. People joined the party bringing boxes of pizzas and appetizers to share. Whole families showed up to decorate houses and the restaurant was filled with good cheer.
Lynn McDermott of Wellfleet met Taylor and her partner Bill Witmer through a Habitat for Humanity fundraiser. Every year since 2005, Taylor and Witmer have built a gorgeous wood kayak to raise money for that organization and McDermott sells raffle tickets for it at the Wellfleet Oysterfest. She was happy to help build the gingerbread houses.
“I’ve been volunteering for years,” she said. “It’s a lot of fun and they are wonderful people. Their hearts are crazy big.”