Photos by Lauren Thomas
For more than 15 years, Reverend Lee Gartrell has been making gingerbread houses with the junior choir at the Reformed Church in New Paltz. He creates mini-houses out of milk cartons and graham crackers, glues them with white frosting and then brings in tons of candy to the choir rehearsal to allow the kids to create their own masterpieces after they return from their holiday caroling.
Gartrell, who was born in Nebraska — “65 miles north of the geographical center of the United States,” he points out — is also renowned for his ornate gingerbread houses that he donates to the church’s Christmas fair every year.
“My mother was a baker and she always encouraged us to learn to bake,” he says. “I was always fascinated by Christmas stories, particularly gingerbread stories, and got it in my mind one day that I was going to make a gingerbread house — and I’ve been doing it ever since.”
“He makes them all from scratch, and they’re just stunning,” said Barbara Lane of the Reformed Church. Gartrell has a photo album of all of his creations, which include a gingerbread house with a carousel, replicas of the various churches at which he has been a pastor and one with a five-car train. “I’ve made all the mistakes in the book!” he adds with a laugh.
As the children rush in from caroling, he walks around the tables, assisting them, talking with them, praising their work.
He says that the tradition began when former longtime choir director Nancy Herforth asked him if he would be interested in helping the children learn the craft of gingerbread-housemaking. “I love to bake; I had wanted to do something at Christmas time and this was the perfect fit. I gathered milk cartons and graham crackers and candy, made frosting and they just loved it.” The tradition continued with current choir director Kyle Pogemiller.
“This is their favorite event all year!” said Angela Rhinehart, a parent who grew up in the church.
“I like the candy, setting it all up in a pretty patterns, putting the frosting on. And it’s just really, really fun!” said seven-year-old Rebecca Lucchesi, who was hard at work on her gingerbread house. “We don’t eat it. We find a spot in the house and turn it into a decoration. My Mom wouldn’t let me eat all that candy!”
One boy had turned the base of a candy cane into a chimney; another one had a roof tiled in Skittles.
“It’s really a culmination of the holiday season for our junior choir,” said Lane. “They’ve rehearsed and performed at candlelight services; they’ve gone caroling; and this is something that they just look forward to every year.”
She pointed out that for Gartrell, “It is a labor of love. It took four of us at his house to put these all together. But as you can see, it’s well-worth it.”