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The story behind Pepperkakebyen

To the rest of the world, Pepperkakebyen is the world’s largest gingerbread town. To the people of Bergen, Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without it.

By Emma Fast-Field

The first thing that strikes me as I walk into Pepperkakebyen is the scent, all pine trees and spices. The next is the light.  

At Pepperkakebyen’s heart is an enormous room illuminated by a blue light like the Polar Night. It’s filled with gingerbread houses twinkling with fairy lights. There are candy-covered houses at toddlers-eye height, and church spires reaching for the ceiling. Gingerbread structures cling to the sides of mini mountains and spill out into the surrounding corridors. A model train puffs through it all, gentle festive music fills the air, and a bright full moon hangs in the corner.  

The work that has gone into this place is spectacular. 

A Bergen institution

The person behind Pepperkakebyen is Steinar Kristoffersen. In the early 1990s, when he was marketing director for Galleria, a shopping mall in the centre of Bergen, he was tasked with developing ideas for a new Christmas activity in the city centre venue: “So we started, in 1991, to build a gingerbread city,” he tells me, in his matter-of-fact way.  

Pepperkakebyen is, and always has been, a city-wide community effort. “It started with kindergartens, schools, families, companies, and organisations,” says Steinar. “Now everyone attends and makes their own gingerbread constructions.” A few years ago, Bergen’s women’s prison contributed their dream prison, and Hurtigruten has made gingerbread ships for the harbour.

The gingerbread city is made of around 2,000 hand-made gingerbread buildings, varying in size and ambition from sweet-laden sheds to towering recreations of local churches. The original goal was to create a mini-Bergen, but contributors nowadays don’t always play by the rules; I spotted impressive recreations of Hogwarts from Harry Potter and Central Perk café from the Friends TV series!  

Exactly which buildings are recreated doesn’t really matter though. The gingerbread constructions themselves aren’t nearly as important as the atmosphere Pepperkakebyen evokes, both for those who visit and for the hundreds who help create it.  

As well as the gingerbread makers, there are designers, architects, and ticket booth volunteers. Working here is a rite of passage for many Bergen teens. All profits go to children’s charities, and there’s a gently competitive element but, as Steinar says, “the most important thing for us is to make a nice event in the pre-Christmas season.” 

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A gingerbread wonderland

In Pepperkakebyen, I wander past gingerbread ships in a gingerbread harbour, a gingerbread tram stopped outside a gingerbread lighthouse, and a gingerbread zoo filled with gingerbread elephants, each one carefully made by a Bergen local. There’s a marshmallow unicorn in a gingerbread lavvu and a steam train chuffing past an enormous gingerbread castle with snow-covered turrets and glowing windows.  

One of the seven dwarves, Doc, waves happily to me from the balcony of a multi-storey gingerbread house. Rows of gingerbread people – some attached to carefully cut-out faces of the people who made this piece – pack a gingerbread stadium to watch gingerbread football teams play on a sugar-dusted gingerbread pitch. And in one little corner, I spy a liquorice centipede nibbling at a bright red mushroom with white-icing spots. 

Chocolate drops, colourful candies, and piped icing sugar cover almost every surface – apart from the spots where the sweets have proved irresistible to little hands! Kids under 2 can enter for free, as can everyone who contributed, as well as children under 12 on weekdays. The temptation I feel to pluck a piece to nibble is strong – and I’ve just had brunch. 

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A new tradition

I’m speaking to Steinar after my visit to Pepperkakebyen, in a food tent in Bergen’s Christmas market – another local festive institution. Outside, it’s raining – this is Bergen, after all – but inside it’s cosy and warm from the heat of people sipping gløgg and hot chocolate topped off with a tower of whipped cream.  

More than 30 years after his first flash of inspiration, it’s clear that Steinar is still completely dedicated to the project – and something of a local celebrity because of it. Everyone seems to know who Steinar is, and he frequently pauses during our chat to return the waves and nods of people passing by.  

In between these friendly interactions, he tells me how Pepperkakebyen has grown, and why it’s about far more than just its size: “Now we have about 8,000 visitors each year and some say it wouldn’t be Christmas without it. It's become an essential part of the season for many people. It's a new tradition.” 

Gunvor Rasmussen, an illustrator and owner of a quirky studio in Bergen’s UNESCO-listed Bryggen area, agrees. “Pepperkakebyen has been a huge part of my Christmases since the ‘90s. I can’t really remember a time that it wasn’t there. It was a way to make our own Christmas tradition when everything else was already steeped in tradition. When you start making gingerbread with friends every year, it becomes A Thing. It wasn’t always about making something very beautiful, it was the fun of doing it.” 

And it does sound like a lot of fun! “A friend and I made a witch's cottage in our metal period, when we made everything goth! Then we made a wonky wizard's tower, and once we made a castle – or rather it didn't look like a castle, but it was a good attempt,” she remembers. “We’ve also made a normal gingerbread house overloaded with everything pink and candy. This year [2022], I recreated my studio. I put a gallery inside so you could look at original pieces of art, and a sign outside saying ‘Open’.” 

A gingerbread world

The love and care – and humour – that goes into creating Pepperkakebyen is tangible. It’s easy to see why the gingerbread city tradition has caught on, “especially in the north of Norway, and where the Hurtigruten travels,” says Steinar, but also around the world. 

In Norway, you can see gingerbread cities in Stavanger, Hammerfest, Haugesund, Fredrikstad, and Bodø, and Norwegian communities across the USA create them too. An annual effort in Minnesota has grown to more than 250 houses. 

Bergen’s Pepperkakebyen is huge and the largest by area, but a rival gingerbread town in New York City is the official holder of the World’s Largest Gingerbread Village record. Why? The crucial distinction is that New York City’s ‘Gingerbread Lane’, handmade by Jon Lovitch every year, is fully edible, whereas Bergen’s revels in its joyous jumble of edible gingerbread and sweets alongside inedible trains, tiny trees strung with real fairy lights, and delightfully incongruous figurines. 

“It was not part of my vision that it should spread. But I am happy that it has,” Steinar tells me. Happy is how I feel when I leave Pepperkakebyen, too. It’s impossible not to be inspired by its lovingly handmade creations and festive community spirit I think as I step back outside into the Bergen rain. And yes, I buy a few gingerbread house kits before I go. Feeling all warm inside, I vow to start a new tradition at home.