In the Loop

News and views from across Mayo Clinic

December 23, 2021

Tales from the archives: ‘The Gingerbread Man’ and a recipe for the holidays at Saint Marys

By In the Loop
Gingerbread cookie dough

Earlier this month, John Murphy from Public Affairs sat down with Sister Lauren Wienandt, archivist at Saint Marys, to talk holiday traditions. She let him in on a story handed down over the years by the Sisters of Saint Francis.


Earlier in December, Sister Lauren was at her desk addressing one of her almost 500 Christmas cards, just like she has for the last 65 years. They are an expression of gratitude to those who have helped Mayo Clinic and our patients over the years and offer best wishes for the new year.

I was admiring her energy as the sun streamed in behind her and asked a question I've often asked, "Will you tell me a story about Christmas at Saint Marys? I always love to hear them."

"Oh John," she said with a twinkle, "there are so many. Haven't they all been told? Let me think. Well, there is the one about the gingerbread man, but I'm sure I've told you that one."

"No, Sister, you never have," I said. "Please tell me."

Sister Lauren leaned back, took a sip of her cappuccino and began:

So, as the legend goes, it was probably 1910 or so, and the hospital was expanding quickly. Sisters were working around the clock in every ward, including pediatrics. There was no time to rest or even enjoy a quiet moment for prayer.

But each night as dark began to fall, after all the children had been fed and washed and put in warm pajamas, the sisters would take turns reading to the young patients right before bedtime. This night happened to be the night before St. Nicholas Day, Dec. 6, when good old St. Nick brings treats to the children in the morning. The children were filled with anticipation of what the morning would bring.

It was a young sister's turn to do the reading — I can't remember her name — and she had all the children gathered around her. Some were in wheelchairs, some in hospital beds, some pulled up close in rocking chairs. For many children, this was a sad time of the day. Parents could not visit overnight, and many patients spent weeks or months in the hospital.

'The Gingerbread Man' story was very popular at the time. It was written in 1875, I think in Germany, and was translated into English and appeared on Broadway in 1905.

You're probably familiar with the story:

An old woman and her husband lived alone in a cabin buried deep in the woods, away from the hustle and bustle of the village.

The couple was lonely. With no children of their own, they were forced to live out their days and nights in solitude.

It was on one of these nights that an idea occurred to the woman: She would make a boy out of gingerbread. If she couldn't have a son, this was the next best thing.

As she pulled her creation out of the oven, however, the boy jumped from the pan and fled the cabin.

The woman and her husband chased after the gingerbread to no avail. As he ran, the gingerbread man happily sang a song.

"Run, run, as fast as you can. You can't catch me — I'm the gingerbread man!"

First, the gingerbread man passed a cow. Then a pig. Finally, a wolf tricked the gingerbread man and gobbled it up.

As soon as the young sister read that the wolf ate the gingerbread man, all the young patients (and then the young sister) burst into tears! They were so loud, other sisters rushed to the ward to see what was wrong and to calm them down.

The children were crying: "The gingerbread man is gone! Forever"

The sister was crying: "I've ruined Christmas."

Finally, Sister Victor, head of dietetics, came into the room and with a calm steady voice, reassured the children and the sister that everything would be OK. Then she gathered all the sisters around her in the convent and said: "We know what we have to do. Off to the kitchen we go!"

So the sisters, after a long day of work, pulled out the pots and pans, fired up the ovens, pulled out the molasses, spices, eggs and brown sugar, and began baking gingerbread men through the night. When they opened the oven doors, these gingerbread men did not run away!

And when the children woke up the next morning, each one had a gingerbread man at their place, with extras to spare.

"This is the best St. Nick's Day ever!" the children said with glee. "The gingerbread man is OK!"

Each Christmas, I can still feel the joy in the air.


Sisters of Saint Francis Gingerbread Cookies

Create your own tradition — and perhaps a tale for future generations — with the Sisters of Saint Francis Gingerbread cookie recipe.

Ingredients

3/4 c. (1 1/2 sticks) butter, softened
3/4 c. packed brown sugar
2/3 c. molasses
1 large egg
1 tsp. pure vanilla extract
3 1/4 c. all-purpose flour
1 tbsp. ground ginger
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp. ground cloves
1/4 tsp. ground nutmeg
1/2 tsp. kosher salt

Frosting and sprinkles for decorating

Directions

  1. In a large bowl using a hand mixer, beat butter, brown sugar, and molasses until fluffy, about 2 minutes. Add egg and vanilla and beat until combined.
  2. In a medium bowl, whisk flour, spices, baking soda, and salt until combined. With the mixer on low, gradually add dry ingredients to wet ingredients, until dough just comes together. (Do not overmix!)
  3. Divide dough in half and create two discs. Wrap each in plastic wrap and chill until firm, about 2 to 3 hours. (Alternatively, divide dough in half and roll each piece of dough between two pieces of parchment to 1/4" thick. Chill until firm.)
  4. Preheat oven to 350° and line two large baking sheets with parchment paper. Place one disc of dough on a lightly floured surface and roll until 1/4" thick. (Alternatively, peel off both sheets of parchment from dough, then replace one sheet of parchment back underneath dough.) Cut out gingerbread men with a 3" wide cutter and transfer to baking sheets.
  5. Bake until slightly puffed and set, 9 to 10 minutes, depending on the size of your cookie cutters. Let cool on baking sheets for 5 minutes before transferring to a cooling rack to cool completely. 
  6.  Repeat with remaining disc of dough. Decorate with icing and sprinkles as desired.

HELPFUL LINKS

Tags: Employee Stories, John Murphy, Saint Marys Hospital, Sister Lauren Wienandt, Sisters of Saint Francis Gingerbread Cookies

A wonderfully happy article.

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