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Hills & Dales Estate hosts annual Children’s Christmas Celebration

Hills & Dales hosted its ninth annual Children’s Christmas Celebration on Saturday. The event included decorating gingerbread houses with candy, meeting Santa, storytime with Mama Jama and a sing along with Robin Treadwell. 

Diane Goldwire attended the event with her grandchildren. Her grandson Reed Goldwire said the most exciting part of the day was eating candy, and he was going to tell Santa he wants Mario for Christmas. 

Connie Lowe was guiding her grandchildren through the crowd.

“They have a blast every year. It’s a tradition now, our fourth year,” Lowe said.

This is the sixth year for Darby Temple and her family. 

“They love it, and we don’t have to make gingerbread houses at home,” she said of the kids. 

The gingerbread houses are assembled prior to the event. According to Hills & Dales Director Carlton Wood, the structures need to dry before they can be decorated. However, he takes no credit for the architecture or the build process. That credit goes to Joanna Baxter, who Wood calls “The Gingerbread Lady.”

Baxter was a middle school teacher and had a gingerbread activity in the classroom. One student made a Spanish hacienda.

“The best part is seeing how creative the children are,” Baxter said.  “It’s interesting to see what they do.” 

When Wood brought up the idea of building gingerbread houses, Baxter said she knew what to do. She designed the houses, and she oversees the event each year. 

“The most important part is that it’s a full community project. Anybody can come,” Baxter said. “There are no language barriers. It’s something for the whole community.”

In the early years, the event featured cookies that could be decorated with icing. It evolved to feature Baxter’s gingerbread houses later, then Santa, storytime and a sing along. Wood said the idea for this day came from a desire to bring kids onto the grounds. 

“Some perceived us as being open only to adults, even though Mr. and Mrs. Callaway are very family friendly. We wanted to do something family friendly and fun,” Wood said. 

Around 300 children were expected at this year’s event, according to Wood. 

“It’s meant to be a gift to the community,” Wood said. “Kids love to make a gingerbread house. We even have one where families can take pictures together next to it.”

Hills & Dales Estate had a life-sized gingerbread house façade with windows that open on display, so kids could put their faces in the window and have their pictures taken. From there, kids could go into the next room and decorate the small houses with candy.

“I like how they’re already built, and you can just decorate them,” young decorator Anna Beth Kinnersley said. “I’m going to put peppermints on mine.”

Parks Busbin, 8, had come from Auburn to take part. 

He liked the side of his gingerbread house the best. He built a road there. 

It had been a few years since young Kaiden Tumpkins had been here to build a gingerbread house. 

“This is my second one,” Tumpkins said, “A long time ago – I think I was 4 – I made one.”

Assisting the young builders were freshmen LaGrange High School Service Club members. The students handed out the pre-built houses and supplied children with candies for decoration. 

Carrie Mills, the visitor center manager for Hills & Dales, described the process of getting the gingerbread houses ready for decoration. 

First, you cut the points, which Mills said is the triangle part right under the roof. 

“Then you assemble the house with royal icing (ours has no yolks),” she explained. 

Any seams are covered with royal icing on the outside of the house to make it prettier, Mills said, and the assembled house is placed on a round piece of cardboard and left to dry. 

Then, the children decorate with candy, using small bags of royal icing as an edible cement.  

With each house carefully wrapped in a bag, kids were free to visit Santa and go to story time with local favorite “Mama Jama, the storytelling mama”. 

The kids put on costumes to act out two stories: “That’s Not Santa” and “The Choo Family.”

“I’ve seen her at my school,” young visitor Sage Brown said of Mama Jama.

The character is a creation of literacy advocate Debbie Burdett.

“This is a wonderful tradition. We all look forward to coming to Hills & Dales,” Burdett said, “And we’re thankful for the help of the Service Club.” 

“My kids do this every year,” mom Emily Smallwood said. 

Looking at her youngest, she said, “She’s probably eaten more than is on the house.”

Another mom, Amanda Allen, was enjoying watching her kids at the event. 

“We love spending the day here, having family time. They get to have story time and sing songs,” Allen said. 

“It’s a messy, messy good time.”