We’ve had a long-standing tradition of decorating gingerbread houses — well, the girls have, at least (vs. mom). We aren’t advanced enough to bake our own houses –we’re happy to buy a Wilton kit and spend all our energy on the actual decorating.
As the girls got older, they started including their nearby nieces and nephews in the activity and it’s now as anticipated an event as the cookie baking day and the trip to the mall to ride the Christmas train and have lunch out.
A few years ago, I had a brain cramp and decided it would be a great support group activity, so I bought 14 Wilton gingerbread house kits on sale, and we set up stations for some of the homeschool support group families to join us. That was my first experience, personally, with mortaring fourteen houses that didn’t quite fit together correctly. I wanted to have the houses built and ready for decorating. I provided the houses, the venue, the royal icing, some snacks and Christmas music, and they brought decorations to share…and LOADS of enthusiasm. We had a blast.
So after Christmas, my girls were out shopping and found – lo and behold – an after-Christmas sale at Michael’s. So they came home with 27 gingerbread houses. As you can imagine, my husband was thrilled at the prospect of holding on to 27 gingerbread houses for almost a year.
I thought it would be a great idea to do them in July – “Christmas in July,” right? The upside to that is that we could actually do it OUTside and the millions of little sprinkles could fall through the cracks in the deck boards instead of the cracks between the coffee table boards. I could hose off the deck and tables. And it would be fun. But life got in the way, and we finally got around to them in December.
And what a blast! Thought I’d tell you a bit of what we did, so you can try it in your local homeschool group or Awana group or play group, or family…(and you can surmise from my description what YOU will more wisely do differently!).
1. Bought the houses on sale. Stored them where hopefully mice wouldn’t be tempted.
2. To whet the group’s appetite for months, I sent out teasers about doing this sometime in the winter. About two weeks in advance, we announced the date on our FB page and took sign-ups — asked for family name and number of children participating. It helps to know their ages, so you know if some children will be best suited to work with a sibling, etc. We planned it for 1-4 p.m. in the afternoon after they’d been Christmas caroling at the nursing home that morning – gave them over an hour to catch lunch and then head over here.
3. The plan was to offer one house per family, unless the family was a bit larger (in which case we had two for that family) or unless the houses were very small (such as in the case of a handful of boxes of VILLAGES vs houses — hence, five small houses to a box).
4. The night before the house day, I whipped up some homemade pizzas and a salad to bribe volunteer moms to come over with glue guns to help glue together any houses that had not been packaged pre-assembled. I know — you’re thinking Hot Glue? But these houses are a YEAR old — we don’t want anyone eating them anyway, so…. Now to get the glue people to make a hot glue that dries thick and opaquely white…..
5. I set up stations throughout the house to give families space to spread out a bit, but tried to put at least two families to a table or area so they could actually “visit” with each other. (There’s nothing like going to an event where you just do your own thing without any contact — may as well have done THAT at home. Sort of like going to a covered dish supper where it’s just your family at your table — um, where’s the fun in that?)
So there were four families at our large dining table, two at the coffee table (toddlers–low table), two families at the island, and at least two families per table set up in the family room. (We ended up with 31 children and 13 moms.)
6. At each station, I placed a placard with the family name and the number of decorators expected. Their house was set up there, on a cardboard piece for easier transportation. Each area got a few small bowls for decorations and a few butter knives for spreading. I tried to strategically place a few of the empty boxes, with decorating ideas on them (the box photos). Chairs were strategically placed, as well as were seating options for nursing (or just tired) moms.
7. I rolled up my rugs, covered the fabric furniture with sheets, and just planned for a mess — when you expect it, you’re less stressed over little sprinkles, Skittles, and silver dragees hitting the floor. I just told folks to make sure they weren’t causing a fall hazard; otherwise, I’d clean it all up later.
8. Each family had a parent in attendance, so I was not responsible for the care of the children. This left me free to make batch after batch of frosting (see the Cookie Icing recipe in the Sugar Cookie post — just make it a bit thicker so the decor items don’t slide off the roof). I mixed up quadruple batches of icing at a time in my Bosch Compact mixer and allocated one bowl per house on the tables.
9. On decorating day, they arrived, ditched their coats, and found their stations. I gave cursory instructions to the moms, passed out bowls of decorator icing, reminded them to share little candies and sprinkles, and let them go at it. They spent about 90 minutes decorating, then while the houses dried, the moms helped clear up the tables and the kids played together (outside, even—we had a wonderful break in our Shenandoah Valley weather and they had foot races outside). Then we set out a snack spread in the kitchen and gave out Dixie cups of water to the kiddos (and set up a hot cocoa/tea station for the moms).
They were loading up their cars with happy children and designer gingerbread houses at 4pm. I hauled out the vacuum cleaner, loaded the dishwasher, and Norwexed all the tables and counters, and smiled at the fun we’d had.
Jim even says we can do it again next year. He’s making room to store the houses this year. I sure have an awesome husband!
For more inspiration: My friend Gayle does this with her extended family as part of their Thanksgiving celebration, and this year they made 12; she starts with graham crackers to simplify things and they can enjoy the creative process!
Up for more of a challenge? Gayle’s family has even made log cabins from pretzel “logs,” using the icing as chinking!
(Stay tuned–I’m trying to convince Gayle to do a guest post for me about all the wonderful things they do during that week!)
And my friend Melodie has made this an annual tradition for their family as well…
PC: Melodie Murray
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