Bright Lights, Big Gingerbread Village

Holiday traditions don’t get any sweeter than this.

Lights sparkle from SoDo to Belltown, a giant evergreen stands in the Seattle Center fountain and, at Nordstrom, Santa will soon open his doors to nice children. In other words, the holiday season is here. Another hallmark of our festive city will arrive Tuesday, Nov. 22, when Mayor Mike McGinn unveils the 19th Annual Gingerbread Village at the Sheraton Hotel.

Beloved by sweet-tooth junkies and imaginative children alike, this Seattle tradition utilizes more than a half-ton of dough, 800 pounds of icing, thousands of individual pieces of candy and a good deal of plywood. The Gingerbread Village is open to the public 24 hours a day, every day until Sunday, Jan. 1. Proceeds from visitor donations benefit the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation’s Northwest Chapter.

The creative process begins when the JDRF chooses a theme for the village, and architects from six Seattle firms brainstorm with the Sheraton’s culinary team of experts. Then comes the actual construction of these models, which amounts to nearly 400 man-hours of meticulous work. This year’s theme is “The Holiday Express,” with six entries inspired by train stations across the globe, from Melbourne, Australia to the North Pole.

“The inpsiration is to travel around the world, getting other countries involved and respecting other cultures,” Executive Chef John Hart said. “It’s a way for people to travel, connect with other people who see it and wind up at the North Pole.”

Chef Hart leads the team of gingerbread elves, including pastry chef Wally Walberg, a 21-year veteran of the Sheraton who has contributed to every display since 1992.

“Some of the stations are kind of similar structurally, so we like what the architects did to angle the buildings from a fish eye effect to give it a different look,” Chef Walberg said. “It’s really a clever idea because it looks fun and interactive, compared to something straight and stark.”

The mastermind behind the North Pole display is Sheraton’s Executive Sous-chef, David Mestl, whose entry features a train coasting along a snowy mountain, complete with an abominable snowman and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Mestl says he spent nearly $600 on the display, and labored for nearly 70 hours to perfect it. At one point, he spent four hours correcting a “failure with lights” that involved an indoor chandelier made from rock candy and melted blue sugar.

The Gingerbread Village is free for all to visit, though donations are greatly appreciated. More than $523,000 was raised in the event’s first 18 years, and the Sheraton and JDRF hope holiday spirit inspires even more contributions in 2011. The JDRF Northwest Chapter is committed to funding the world’s best research for a cure to type 1 diabetes and its complications.

To make a difference this festive season, visit JDRF Northwest online and catch the Holiday Express at the Sheraton!

The 19th Annual Gingerbread Village at the Sheraton Hotel | Nov. 22 — Jan. 1