A Christmas miracle 16 years ago turned into a busy seasonal job for Shawnigan Lake’s Kim Barnard, who has turned baking gingerbread into an art.
Several months after her husband was laid off in 2004, Barnard’s family was looking at a meagre Christmas. But an inspired gamble on a school craft fair saved the day and changed her life.
The love of gingerbread dates back to Barnard’s childhood.
“I’ve always enjoyed the nostalgia of my family’s gingerbread recipe,” she remembers. “And it was my job to make full-sized gingerbread people during the holidays since I was a teen.”
When her husband, Cam, was posted to Japan for a tech job in 2002-03, Kim took the recipe with her, but neglected to pack cookie cutters. The only ones she could find in Motomachi were tiny, but she bought them anyway — her first two, a boy and a girl, are the ones she still uses to this day. Within a short time, she had acquired a dozen shapes: a bell, star, rocking horse, teddy bear, tree, mitten, snowflake, angel, holly and a leaping deer. She experimented making cookies for the family’s Japanese friends in the little convection oven, which was a minor luxury in their rental apartment.
Flash forward a year to January 2004, when Cam was laid off by his employer when it relocated from Nanaimo to Vancouver. As job prospects failed to arise, the Barnards rationed the severance pay to get them through to December, making sacrifices to keep the house and feed their two young kids. They had about $60 saved up for the holidays, meant to cover Christmas dinner and some small presents for the kids.
One day, however, their daughter, Amy, came home from school talking excitedly about the upcoming two-day craft fair at her school, suggesting that her family book a table and sell her mom’s baking.
The Barnards gambled their Christmas budget on a table and ingredients, and Kim baked a couple of batches of gingerbread that the family packed into “squeaky-clean” reused takeout containers with their phone number and the label “Homemade with Love by the Barnard Family.”
Kim went off to teach the part-time graphics class that was barely keeping her family afloat financially, while Cam and her dad Dave operated the gingerbread table in the school gym. When Kim stopped by later to check in, the men were ecstatic.
“Go home immediately and make more!” they insisted.
The 30 boxes they made for the first day sold out, so Kim pulled an all-nighter to make 25 for the next day, and subsequent orders filled the calendar right up until Christmas.
“It was all hands on deck that year, but we went from practically being in line for a Christmas hamper to having enough income to restock our bare kitchen shelves, buy presents, bring home a real tree, and of course prepare a turkey dinner with all the trimmings,” Kim remembers.
Instead of giving away tasters at markets, the family put a can on the table and asked for quarters for the CMS Food Bank. They always had a generous bag of donations, including loonies and toonies, to donate.
Kim learned to love the entire process, from mixing ingredients to kneading and rolling and counting the cutouts, keeping the oven busy with trays full of cookies, and then hand-decorating the final product.
“It’s so lovely to work in the twinkle-lit space, surrounded by the smells and vibes of the season,” she says. “We live beside a forest, and I can work at any hours and listen to audiobooks and podcasts and radio, in a kind of soothing, magical production line. Not everyone has the aptitude to do this kind of repetitive work, but it makes me come alive with joy and purpose.
“It’s taking on a new significance this year as I think of all of the smiles that these happy little cookies are sure to bring! I trust that they will be a comforting part of my customers’ traditions, as we have repeat orders year after year and now have to keep a wait list by December.”
Kim’s company is called ii2c information design & gingerbread. Pronounced “eyes to see,” it is “a reference to my trade background in print and design, and to us as a family looking to Providence for our faith and hope for the future.”
Thanks to a shelf-life of more than three months once they are packed in air-tight sushi boxes, Kim can start baking well ahead of Christmas, which is vital when she ends up completing more than 650 boxes over eight weeks. Her gingerbread has travelled around the world, as far away as Italy and Indonesia.
“I love to hear the stories of how they have been a special part of someone’s memories of the season,” Kim says. “I am constantly reminded of the miracle of Providence our first year, and the little cookie that could bless so many.”
Kim has entered the Habitat for Humanity Victoria Gingerbread Showcase five times, including this year, when she recreated scenes from her beloved Camp Homewood on Quadra Island to follow the theme of “Coastal Living.” Displays need to be at least 18 inches high and 100 per cent edible. Building the project, titled “Happy Campers,” took Kim two weeks from start to finish, but the most challenging part was transporting it over the Malahat from Shawnigan Lake to Victoria.
“I always breathe easier once this is done!” she says in a testimonial on the Habitat for Humanity Victoria website.
The Gingerbread Showcase can be seen in the front windows of the Victoria Marriott Inner Harbour (728 Humboldt St. in Victoria), or online at https://www.habitatvictoria.com/gingerbread2020.html. Viewers can vote for their favourite display in exchange for a donation to Habitat for Humanity.