Pam Franks’ daughters Meghan and Mollie enjoy sisterly bonding over gingerbread housemaking. (Photo courtesy Pam Franks)

The Blue Crow Antique Mall in Keller, Va annually chooses a local landmark to build from cardboard and candy and raffle off each holiday season. St. George’s Parish was the 2016 choice. (Photo courtesy Ellie Cackowksi)

This holiday season parents will again ponder ways to create traditions appealing enough to lure youngsters away from the latest tech wizardry, and meaningful enough to last.
Two families, in different regions of the country, discovered a secret which worked for them, and which they now share with others.
Ellie Cackowski, an antique mall owner on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, and Pam Franks, a Texas realtor each learned how the simplest ingredients — gingerbread, cardboard boxes, icing, and candy — when mixed with love and laughter at least once a year, can provide an answer.
Franks’ first gingerbread house, snug enough to fit on a small tray, was created when she was a newlywed more than 30 years ago with help from her mother-in-law.
Each year since, a sweet though structurally enhanced gingerbread abode has been created, rising two stories with lighting added, requiring a 2-by-4-inch platform to rest on. Figurines and scenic décor are added each year (one recent innovation is a tiny frozen pond for ice hockey) but original favorites often return.
Based on the Betty Crocker Gingerbread Cookie Recipe and packaged frosting, the guiding principle for successful building is “less is more,” according to Franks. “People try to keep putting icing on to hold it together, but my mother-in-law showed us the simple trick of putting a glass on the inside wall at a right angle—it sets up in just a few minutes,” she added.
The Frank family gingerbread houses instilled a sense of wonder in children Meghan, Mollie, Madeline, and Matthew from the time they were toddlers into their college days (yes, the houses were delivered on campus!) and even now in their 20s and 30s. Today, a 2 1/2-year-old grandchild gets to join in on the journey.
The building process didn’t always go smoothly, Franks remembered. One year the dog munched part of the roof off, another time the second floor imploded. Santa even crashed into the chimney.
But looking back, the idea was never to build a “perfect” house of dazzling beauty. “The beautiful part came from the memories and the magic,” she recalled, referring to the longstanding family lore that from the first Sunday in December until the 23rd, without fail, the Franks gingerbread house served as an elf “getaway” where a handful of Santa’s hardworking helpers could rest and refresh.
Inspired by her husband’s German heritage, the elves, known as Hans, Grietal, Stefan, Kirsten, and Franz, left notes for the children, reminding them to be kind and study hard, while gently explaining its not always about getting everything you ask Santa for.
The youngsters wrote back, and looked forward to small gifts from the visitors, like ornaments and toothbrushes, Christmas pencils, and sometimes even quarters for “rent.”
For Pam Franks, part of the magic is remembering her daughters, at age 7 or 8, eagerly setting their alarms so they could wait by the gingerbread house, arms around each other, hoping for an elf sighting. Daughter Mollie, now grown, provided another treasured memory to the mix, when she recently cited the experience as her first form of faith, a miracle made possible through the magic of Christmas, Franks said.
In 2015 Franks’ children’s book The Magic Gingerbread House, based on the family’s unique tradition, was published. Because it features a storyline with a youngster whose parents are both deployed at Christmastime, the book was selected by nonprofit group United Through Reading, which enables service members away from home to stay connected with their children by video recording them reading a book. (Two of Franks’ adult children have served in the military.) The story also received an accolade from former First Lady Barbara Bush in the form of a personal thank you note.
A follow up story, touching on bullying, is due out this month. A wooden replica gingerbread house kit, designed for permanent use, is featured on the Magic Gingerbread House website. Franks regularly visits schools, libraries, and civic groups, hoping to inspire others to fashion their own meaningful traditions, in their own way.
“Our elves don’t have to be your elves,” she added, “you can customize them to best reflect your own personal story.”
While residing in their home state of New Jersey, Ellie Cackowski’s family started a similarly sweet tradition that has proven to be equally enduring. Creations crafted from cardboard, covered with frosting and decorated with candy, cast enchantment and spread joy not only among family and friends but throughout the community.
More than 40 years ago, when Cackowski’s BFF Pat had a young daughter, she was inspired to build a castle from cardboard, coat it with frosting, and decorate it with candy. At first “borrowing” a niece to help in the process, eventually Cackowski’s entire family took part in the proceedings.
Husband Len now crafts the edifice structure, while she, her daughter and granddaughter, along with grown niece and great niece, now 3 years old, bring it to life, painting with icing and adding wrapped candies for sparkle and extra sweetness.
During the early days, kid friendly designs including a plane, a carousel, and boats, even Noah’s Ark, were featured. When the Cackowskis retired to Keller, Virginia 20 years ago, they began to honor local landmarks, including historic home Chatham (at Chatham’s Vineyard), Ker Place (home to the Eastern Shore Historical Society in Onancock), St. George’s Parish church, and their own Blue Crow Antique Mall. Last year the Wallops Island NASA building and a rocket were featured following a visit, constructed from oatmeal canisters and salt boxes.
The finished products are displayed at Blue Crow and raffled off (no cost to enter) to a lucky winner, who will receive the decorative edifice and accompanying “sugar high,” laughed Cackowski. Last year a Virginia Beach family won the tasty NASA tableau, and Cackowski literally went the extra mile, driving to St. Charles to meet so they could pick it up. Another year, a delightful depiction was shared with a local Head Start.
Like Pam Franks, Ellie Cackowski uses packaged icing, both vanilla and chocolate, sometimes coloring the vanilla, for the outer coating, plus reasonably priced candy on sale.
Once, simple M&Ms were acceptable, but now individually wrapped candies are used — Hershey’s kisses covered with colorful foil are a favorite. She also employs ice cream cones as trees, twizzlers, and Santa chocolates for added magic.
The family continues to make an annual pilgrimage back to New Jersey this time of year to decorate the structures with family and friends (two grown Cackowski children reside there, as does Pat and family). For four or five hours the group dines and focuses on fun and reconnecting.
“We don’t have a picture we follow, however it turns out, it turns out,” Cackowski confided. She admitted that “sometimes there’s a bit of grumbling during the process, but at the end of the day, it’s always about having a good time together.” The journey back to Virginia can be a challenge to keep the finished product intact, but Len Cackowski has managed to secure the precious cargo successfully. “We haven’t had to ditch one yet,” Ellie recalled with a chuckle.
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