Monday, October 17, 2016

Gingerbread Houses and Holiday Shopping at the Boston Christmas Festival

Boston Christmas Festival_Gingerbread House Competition_New England Fall Events_logo
The Boston Christmas Festival is a beloved shopping extravaganza held over a November weekend each year at the Boston Seaport World Trade Center. 
Celebrating its 30th season, this year’s festival will be held Friday-Sunday, November 4th, 5th, and 6th, 2016. Details
With a companion Gingerbread House Competition to boot, we at New England Fall Events were intrigued to check it out first-hand. As a fall event resource, we don’t usually attend many Christmas-focused events but with more and more festivals extending their holiday season to include November, this particular event lands squarely during our fall season.

It was our very first visit to the Boston Christmas Festival. Though the gingerbread house competition is an important feature of the festival experience, it’s the holiday shopping which takes center stage and it constitutes about 95% of what you’ll see.  The festival overall is neatly organized, enormous, and a very enjoyable way to spend the day if you love Christmas, enjoy shopping, and have a variety of people to shop for. The timing of the 3-day festival—typically the first weekend in November—is ideal for making a dent in your holiday gift list early in the season.

Boston Christmas Festival_Gingerbread House Competition_New England Fall Events_crowdsMost of the vendors at the Boston Christmas Festival are fellow New Englanders. Though being New England-based is not a requirement for vendors, the fact that most were locals really lent a personal feel to a festival otherwise so large in scale. We met many New England artisans—potters, woodworkers, craft makers, small batch food producers—of every size and stripe. Beyond the festival, some vendors we met had brick-and-mortar shops, others sold their goods online, and a handful sold their wares exclusively at craft shows and festivals.

Before heading to the festival we did a little research on their website. The Seaport World Trade Center is a large expo hall situated in--you guessed it-- the Seaport District of Boston. With an exit right off the Mass Pike, the seaport district itself is a snap to reach via car and has plenty of open lot parking near the Trade Center. Like always, parking in Boston is generally pricey; although there are numerous options in this area, only one could be considered affordable--Necco Garage (10 Necco St.). The Boston Christmas Festival website suggests pre-booking across the street at “Lot 18” for $28.75. Without pre-booking the rates are $27 for 2-3 hours (not enough time to attend this festival) and $30 for 3-6 hours which is a more realistic amount of time you’ll be there. The Necco Garage, by comparison, has a Saturday and Sunday flat rate of $5 (yes, you read that right). The trade-off is the 12 minute walk from Necco to the Trade Center which we felt was a minor sacrifice. (If you attend the festival on Friday, Necco Garage’s rates are higher with a $21 daily max).

Boston Christmas Festival_Gingerbread House Competition_New England Fall Events_crowdsIt’s worth noting that on the Saturday we attended, there were LONG lines of cars just to get in to the open lots and covered garages closest to the Trade Center so with your pre-booked rate or chosen lot proximity, you also are treated to a traffic jam of everyone trying to park in the same place. If you can hoof it from Necco Garage, do (and thank us later for this insider tip).

We arrived right before the festival began at 10:00am on Saturday. The admission is $15 for adults, kids 14 years and under come free. There were long lines to the box office for people wanting to buy tickets. If you plan to use a $3-off coupon from the festival website you’ve also landed yourself a spot in the long box office line since you’ll need to redeem it in person. If buy your ticket online you’ll breeze right through the doors and off you go. Our online ticket got us right in and it was nice to get a head start on the show before the crowds built up.

Boston Christmas Festival_Gingerbread House Competition_New England Fall Events_Flour BakeryTo navigate the festival, pick up a printed map from the box office lobby. The map lists all the booth numbers and their corresponding vendors which is useful if you need to double back to a booth or have a particular vendor in mind. More useful perhaps, is the map clearly shows where the restrooms, concession snack bar, and ATMs are. There is a coat check near the entrance of the hall and since the festival is large enough to spend many hours browsing and shopping, it’s not a bad idea to check coats to free you up for the day ahead.

Upon entering the show floor, the smell of cinnamon candles was incredibly strong. For many, this scent evokes an olfactory-driven nostalgia for a day of holiday shopping; but for those with fragrance sensitivities, this may be genuine cause for concern.

Boston Christmas Festival_Gingerbread House Competition_New England Fall Events_Cupcake CityAt a glance, you’ll see hundreds of vendor booths—over 350, in fact-- and ample shopping ground to cover. Knowing we’d have a day full of browsing ahead of us, we decided to start our adventure by visiting the gingerbread house display and competition.

The beneficiary of this baking competition, other than the feast for our own eyes, is Housing Families, Inc. a wonderful local organization whose mission is to help homeless and at-risk families transition into affordable housing, self-sufficiency, and stability. With youth and family programs, pro bono legal services, and volunteer school tutors, and 400-600 families served, it’s wonderful to see this important group’s work showcased to so many festival-goers and to receive the attention it deserves. During a holiday season marked with so much commercialism, it’s a welcome reminder to remember our fellow neighbors who need our support for securing the most basic essential of a roof over one’s head.

The Gingerbread House Competition is exhibited in the furthest corner of the expo hall which also has the advantage of being set apart from the volume of shoppers. The entrants to the gingerbread house competition are designed and constructed by local bakers and top chefs. In addition to competing for the top prizes, the gingerbread houses themselves are donations which are auctioned off to businesses who wish to display these houses in their foyers and lobbies during the holiday season. The recipient of the funds raised from the auction is Housing Families, Inc.

Boston Christmas Festival_Gingerbread House Competition_New England Fall Events_Masonry Doctor

Boston Christmas Festival_Gingerbread House Competition_New England Fall Events_Make Way for DucklingsAll in all there were about 10-11 houses in the 2015 exhibit. What the houses lacked in numbers, they made up for in their quality, size, and craftsmanship. Many of these houses weren’t the familiar “gingerbread, dripping icing, and candy” that we often think of; instead they landed more in the hand-sculpted, fondant wrapped category, likely because of the durability (and transport) requirement. Some, like the charming row houses by Masonry Doctor, a non-bakery submission which was one of our favorites, had hardly any visible representation of actual brown gingerbread, as nearly every inch of the houses were covered by piped icing and rock candy. Beverly’s Marino’s Café, Burlington’s Café Escadrille, and Davio’s Chestnut Hill each contributed houses with the iconic Snoopy resting on top of his dog house and all three were fully iced from top to bottom.

One of the best representations featuring classic baked gingerbread itself was the Make Way for Ducklings display by Sweet Things , recipient of the award for Most Creative. The renowned Flour Bakery submitted a quaint farm scene complete with a red barn and Boston’s Blackbird Doughnuts’ log cabin was crafted using a combination of pirouline rolled wafers, pretzels, graham crackers, and fondant.

Boston Christmas Festival_Gingerbread House Competition_New England Fall Events_Cupcake City

Cupcake City from Reading, MA received the awards for “Best Tasting” and “Best in Show” with their stunning pastel candyland representation of “Whoville” from How the Grinch Stole Christmas. CitiPerforming Arts Center and Brookline’s Party Favors teamed up for a house and in the process earned honors for “Best Decoration” with their Santa’s Workshop interior and Rudolph-themed outdoor scene.

Boston Christmas Festival_Gingerbread House Competition_New England Fall Events_Ginger BettysThe largest gingerbread “house” could be considered more of an elaborate display showcasing the work of Quincy’s Ginger Betty’s Bakery complete with a Peanuts movie theme. Filled with gingerbread cookie Peanuts characters, this display featured an Eiffel Tower, a stage, Snoopy’s dog house, and layers of smaller details like music notes, trees, and a piano. Ginger Betty’s also occupied the only vendor booth in this area of the exhibit where you could purchase gingersnaps, macaroons, gingerbread kits, as well as decorated and undecorated gingerbread cookies from bite sized to cookies larger than your own face. Ginger Betty’s also hosted a table where kids could decorate their own gingerbread person.

Boston Christmas Festival_Gingerbread House Competition_New England Fall Events_Ginger Bettys

Boston Christmas Festival_Gingerbread House Competition_New England Fall Events
The gingerbread display could be browsed at a leisurely pace and fully enjoyed in about 20 minutes or less. We observed that it was good etiquette to observe the houses several steps back from the table so as not to crowd the display for others to see. The gingerbread houses were very well done and certainly showed off the professional skills of the capable bakers who created them. Despite the polished final product, all the displays managed to retain the whimsy and magic that a gingerbread house should convey. Personally we would LOVE to see more entries into this competition as it is not limited to professional bakers and is a wonderful project to take on—and your donation is to a very worthy cause.

Boston Christmas Festival_Gingerbread House Competition_New England Fall Events_Ginger Bettys
The deadline for entry is in mid-October (no fee) and the house needs to be delivered on Friday morning of the festival for the judging and auction. There are limited rules for the gingerbread house entries—the house base must be 4’x4’ or smaller, and the house must be “sturdy and glazed” to ensure its durability to travel to its final post-competition location and to sustain 6-8 weeks of display. Find the entry form here.

With the gingerbread houses under our belt, we moved on to explore the rest, and majority, of the Boston Christmas Festival—the shopping.

The shopping expo fills every corner of the Trade Center hall and eight aisles of vendor booths are split down the middle with a “Farmer’s Market” which is the aisle dedicated to food-centric vendors. The booths are marked with numbers, some more prominently than others, which is helpful if you rely on the map guide to find a certain vendor or to return to one previously visited.

Boston Christmas Festival_New England Fall Events_Jingle Nog Ornaments
Jingle Nog Glass Ornaments on display
We browsed booths aisle by aisle working our way from one end of the hall to the other. The sheer volume and variety of vendor booths is staggering. As frequent festival attendees ourselves, we know our way around craft and retail vendor booths from the largest fairs (The Big E) to much smaller gatherings. The Boston Christmas Festival holds the distinction for us of having not just the greatest variety of products but they are generally high quality and interesting items. We later learned that the vendors booths are approved based on “quality, originality and professionalism” and we’d concur that the vendors we saw really do fit that bill.  As a significant number of festival vendors draw from local makers and artisans in the Northeast, in many cases we also met the artists and crafters themselves or the owners of these small mom-and-pop start-ups. Though a number of the vendors are at the festival representing their brick-and-mortar shops, there is a strong representation from web-based businesses and Etsy online stores.

Boston Christmas Festival_New England Fall Events_Twice as Nice Mittens
Twice as Nice Mittens booth
If you have a sizable holiday shopping list, you will love the diversity of vendors here--you can find gifts which will appeal to people of every age, pastime, interest, personality, and style. Even if you can’t cross off gifts for every person on your shopping list, we think you’ll have a fair amount of success. There are limitless stocking stuffers, jewelry choices, hand-sewn doll clothes, personalized items, practical gifts, whimsical goodies, tasty treats, and much more. With hundreds of booths to explore, you’ll find goodies to appeal to the cat-fanatic, quilt lover, baking goddess, doll collector, spa scrub and lotion accumulator, sports nut, birdwatcher, organizer, Christmas ornament junkie, woodworker, beachcomber, tinkerer, puzzler enthusiast, teen beauty queen, cold-feet sufferer, avid crafter, sporadic golfer, outdoorsy couple, amateur mixologist, wise gardener, perpetual dieter, and hot sauce aficionado within your circle of friends and family.

Boston Christmas Festival_New England Fall Events_Apiary Designs Aprons
Apiary Designs' lovely apron selection
The Christmas Festival booths really run the gamut in terms of what you’ll find. Being November, there are many booths featuring items and accessories to help one endure cold-weather months. Expect to find countless infinity scarves, cozy socks, mittens, alpaca slippers, fleecy bathrobes, and knitted hats to choose from.

One of our favorite vendors was Boxford, MA’s Twice as Nice Mittens where we picked up a second pair of toasty mittens sewn from recycled wool sweaters—we already own a pair and can attest to their reliable warmth and fun-loving style.

Another standout at the festival was Apiary Designs from Providence, RI whose booth was a veritable beehive of customers all day long. Apiary’s impeccably crafted aprons, zip bags, wristlet pouches, and catnip mats made from high quality fabric in cheerful vintage prints and patterns were flying off their racks. We couldn’t pass up snagging a new reindeer themed apron for our upcoming Christmas baking.

Boston Christmas Festival_New England Fall Events_Erin Moran Artisan Pottery
NH artist Erin Moran's colorful pinched bowls, plates, pitchers, and mugs were a feast for the eyes.

Boston Christmas Festival_New England Fall Events_Pink Pigeons Messy Bags
Pink Pigeon's messy mags were a hit.

Portsmouth, NH artist Erin Moran’s booth was chock-full of vibrantly colored pinch pot cups, mugs, sundae bowls, lidded jars, dessert plates, platters, and snowmen ornaments. The bright glazes, polka dotted designs, simple patterns, and functionality combine to make her wares totally irresistible. If we could have purchased every item in her booth that day, we would have.

Pink Pigeon Creations from Beverly, MA offered dozens of super cute and practical goodies for keeping families organized. Her waterproof-lined fabric “messy bags” are handy for storing snacks, damp items, cosmetics, art supplies, and you-name-it. Pink Pigeon also sells burp cloths, baby blankets, Chapstick carrying key chains, kid-sized aprons, hooded bath towels and more.

Boston Christmas Festival_New England Fall Events_Daves Woodshop scroll saw baskets
Dave's Woodshop's stunning baskets.
Dave’s Woodshop's booth was host to a stunning selection of scroll saw wooden baskets, trivets, and clocks. Cut from a selection of different exotic woods, we couldn’t take our eyes off of his handiwork. Since we bought a striking tigerwood basket for ourselves, we can continue to enjoy Dave’s his skillful creation at home.

If the shopping aisles were busy in the morning, by afternoon they’d reached the next level of congestion. Teeming with people, the aisles grew more challenging to navigate and patience is absolutely essential. For shoppers with strollers in tow, it seemed particularly difficult to get around the crowds and increasingly difficult to steer into a small, busy booth to explore. Moreover, with shoppers wandering crowded aisles with armfuls of handle bags, the bags proved somewhat hazardous to the children sitting in strollers with the tops of their heads landing regrettably at bag-height.
Boston Christmas Festival_New England Fall Events_Oyster shell christmas tree
Beautiful shell trees and wreaths.

In the interest of time, we window shopped all the non-food aisles making notes of which booths we planned to revisit. Though it gave us an excellent overview of what the festival offered, doubling back to buy gifts proved trickier than we’d anticipated due to the increasing crowds. By the time we’d completed our return visits, we were left thoroughly over-stimulated and exhausted. Knowing that the Christmas Festival offers such an extensive variety of booths and goodies, our advice would be to make our purchases at the initial booth visit.
Boston Christmas Festival_New England Fall Events_Muddy Mary Bloody Mary Mix Mud
Muddy Mary's bloody mary "mud"
mixes were wrapped and ready to go.
The central aisle of the expo, dubbed The Farmers’ Market, is where you’ll find the majority of the food booths. As nearly every food vendor offers samples to taste, it’s also the busiest area of the festival. For cooks, bakers, food lovers, and kitchen gadget hoarders on your holiday list, you are sure to find something that will appeal. Many of the booths also cater to shoppers by selling foodie box sets or gift basket arrangements at several price points to simplify your holiday shopping. The smartest vendors here know that having gift options already in attractive packaging is a huge plus for shoppers. Even the bloody mary mix we bought from Muddy Mary’s Gourmet came in a festive shiny red box with a bow—all wrapped in advance for shoppers to grab and go.

Boston Christmas Festival_New England Fall Events_Boonie Doon Shortbread_Jarva Cakes_Soup mixes
L to R: Bags of Boonie Doon's delicious shortbread; Jarva Cakes sold in a jar; ready to cook soup mixes. 

Boston Christmas Festival_New England Fall Events_McCreas Candies Caramels
McCrea's Candies' caramel gifts

Holiday-themed food gifts have the edge at the festival—you’ll have options such as peppermint bark, a variety of fancy kettle corn, holiday cookies, Maine’s own Jarva Cakes, Boston’s McCrea Candies’ tasty caramels, and the most outstanding shortbread we’d ever tasted from VT’s Bonnie Doon’s Scottish Shortbread. The Farmer’s Market is also where the Wakefield, MA’s Gingerbread Construction Company booth is located—perfect for buying or gifting a ready-to-decorate gingerbread house.  Many savory food booths featured holiday hosting appetizer ideas and small hostess gifts. These booths cover gourmet nuts, BBQ rubs and sauces, dip mixes, soup mixes, RI’s Gerbs Allergen Friendly Foods, sauces, dog treats, hot sauces, relishes, pepper jellies, and similar fare.

Physically there is a lot of ground to cover in this giant expo hall. Those who find it challenging to be on their feet for long stretches (on a concrete floor) or need frequent breaks may want to consider how they’ll manage. There is “café seating” at two ends of the large hall but nothing in between that can be easily accessed. The space is wheelchair accessible but, as with stroller, you may find the aisles quite crowded and it is a slow-going negotiation of space.

There are restrooms available in the box office lobby and more restrooms are situated in the absolute rear of the expo hall. The lobby bathrooms had long lines but the rear hall washrooms were rarely crowded and lines moved swiftly. An interesting perk of the bathroom is the display of lotions, hand sugar scrubs, soaps, and other goodies for testing out. These samples are provided by a handful of the festival vendors for attendees to sample and what a terrific idea! The ladies in the bathroom seem to appreciate the chance forgo the standard bathroom pump soap so they could try the goodies available on the counter. Moreover, the samples became a conversation piece between strangers while managing to lift everyone’s energy and spirit. Some vendors had smartly affixed a label to their sample to advise us of their booth number to find the item for purchase. It is funny how something so simple and small, left a huge impression on all of us.

We did see many families, lots of mother-daughter shopping pairs, a fair amount of families with young children in strollers, and a handful of families with preteens. We observed that some families gave their preteens a budget/allowance for making their own purchases and it seemed like a smart strategy for limiting persistent “can I get that?” needling—especially with so many retail goodies vying for attention.

As you’ll be shopping for hours at the festival, at some point you’re bound to get hungry. Snacking on samples in the Farmers’ Market aisle isn’t going to fill your belly. The expo floor does offer a snack bar where the lines can be long and the selection is slim—salads, and simple wraps. There are café tables near the snack bar where you can sit and eat your light fare but the tables don’t turnover as quickly as one would expect—especially as it’s the only place at the festival to rest your feet during hours of shopping.

It’s not a bad idea to pack your own lunch if you plan to spend the full day at the festival and folks with dietary concerns are encouraged to do just that. If you’d rather step out for lunch, it’s easy to grab a bite at one of the local bistros within walking distance in the Seaport District--just be sure to have your hand stamped by the ticket taker for re-admission later.

Though this was our first visit to the Boston Christmas Festival and Gingerbread House Competition, it won’t be our last. It was satisfying to get a head start on holiday shopping in early November and with such variety of vendors, you can find gifts which are bound to appeal to the most enigmatic of personalities or of very particular interests. The festival is well-organized and festival producers mount an impressive expo. Approximately 65% of the booths are repeat vendors and their prior experience at this festival shows both in their efficiency and they seem to have their finger on the pulse of the kinds of gifts early-holiday shoppers may be looking for.  

We appreciate the strong representation of New England-based businesses, and the emphasis on hand-crafted and artisan products. On the whole, the items being sold in the booths feel fresh and interesting—not the all-too-familiar offerings we often see on the “craft festival circuit.” Considering its size, there was a “personal touch” to this festival, likely owing to the large number of local makers and small local businesses vending here. In many cases, the person manning their booth is also the owner or artisan which adds to the quality of customer service and makes each gift purchase more meaningful knowing we are directly supporting our fellow New England neighbors.

Top Tips for Attending the Boston Christmas Festival
Arrive when the doors open to get a head start when the crowds are a bit lighter.

Buy your ticket in advance online. This will save you from standing in line at the box office (which you’ll have to do if you plan to redeem a coupon). For 2016, the online tickets have a reduced price but they’ll come with a small processing fee. Online tickets are the smartest way to go for this event.

Pack a lunch to eat at the festival or to step out for a bite make a reservation at one of the local bistros.

If you don’t mind a 12 minute walk, park at the Necco Garage to take advantage of $5/day flat weekend rate (Sat and Sun). Not only will you spare yourself the traffic jam from trying to park in a lot closer to the Trade Center but you’ll have an extra $23-25 in your pocket to shop with!
Plan to spend hours at the festival. With over 350 vendors plus the gingerbread house exhibit, you can easily spend 4-5 hours here, more if you like to browse slowly.

Every vendor we saw accepted credit cards.

The show floor at the World Trade Center offers free wi-fi which is handy.

If you wish to pack a snack in advance to tie you over there’s a 7-Eleven just outside the Trade Center’s entrance. If step out for lunch, there are many local bistros within walking distance of the Trade Center. in the Seaport District. Be sure to have your hand stamped by the ticket taker for re-admission.

The smell of cinnamon candles in the expo hall is incredibly strong. For those with fragrance sensitivities, this may be a challenging environment to spend time in.

It’s a challenge to navigate the crowds with kiddos and it’s tricky to move strollers through the aisles and into some booths. Kids in strollers seem to be especially exposed to shoppers’ handle bags inadvertently bumping against their heads. Those wearing their babies in a sling could move more freely but make no mistake, there are a lot of bodies all in one place—especially by the afternoon.

There are diaper changing tables in all of the women’s bathrooms.

If you are going with older children or teens, consider giving them an allotted amount to spend at the festival to limit incessant requests to buy buy buy all the great things they see!


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