Orchestral Christmas tunes float through the air as children follow candy-striped poles through the lobby of the Gertrude C. Ford Center. No, Santa Claus hasn’t yet come to town, but another Christmas tradition has converted Ole Miss’ center for performing arts into a Gingerbread Winter Wonderland.
What started in 2010 with a modest display of four houses has grown into a community of 30 gingerbread abodes, according to Ford Center Marketing Director Kate Meacham.
“All of the houses are made by community members,” she said. “Some are businesses and some are families, but without them there would be no Gingerbread Village.”
The entries make up a diverse neighborhood, ranging from an Asian temple guarded by a fire-breathing dragon designed by the Religious Studies Club to a subdivision of houses built by a Girl Scout Daisies troop.
Gingerbread replicas of Oxford landmarks, such as Rowan Oak, are common according to Meacham, and past entries have included city hall and even a scale Ford Center.
In the village’s first year, the road manager of the bass quintet playing the Center’s holiday show saw the opportunity to display her hobby.
“The band got in a day early, and she spent the entire evening baking in our green room,” Meacham said. “She even included little gingerbread horn players.”
A few organizations have entered a house every year of the competition,” Meacham said. “One of these is Cypress Lake Soap. In the past, they’ve done a medieval castle, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and a Dr. Seuss house. This year’s construction is a house of cards.”
The design gives a unique take on a gingerbread house and is a favorite of visitors like Anderson Ross, 7, and Ross Shows, 10, who visited the exhibit with family members Melinda Ross and Ashley Shows, respectively.
Ross’s mother, Ashley, said they’ve been to the village every year it has been open.
“This year might be the best we’ve ever seen,” Shows said. Her favorite display is the candy-coated replica of Bramlett Elementary School.
“Both of the boys went to school there,” Shows said, “and they’ve made gingerbread houses that have been on display in previous years.”
The boys have enjoyed building the houses in the past, and Anderson Ross is looking forward to building one in class this week.
“We just dropped off the supplies [at school] today,” Melinda Ross said.
Local schools are well represented, with multiple entries from Bramlett Elementary and Lafayette County High School, whose art department created a Van-Gough inspired display.
Oxford Moms and Tots held a gingerbread making session for their group as well.
“It’s something parents and their children can do together around the holidays,” Meacham said.
On the other end of the age spectrum, Memory Makers, a group that creates activities for Alzheimer’s and Dementia patients, created a scene themed “to grandmother’s house we go.” This is the third year the group has participated.
“It brings our participants joy to decorate the houses, and they love the fact that little children, as well as adults in the community, can enjoy their creations,” a representative from Memory Makers said.
Even members of the Ole Miss staff participated in creating a house. The University of Mississippi Office of Sustainability that helps design energy efficient buildings on campus put their creative spin on an eco-friendly gingerbread home.
“We thought that the Gingerbread Village would be a fun way to showcase and educate others about home sustainability features,” a representative said.
“The gingerbread residents of this house use the cookie compost in their garden, where they grow their own organic vegetables,” the office said.
The house is located on what the office calls a “complete street” that offers multiple transportation options like an OUT bus shelter, a bike made of Twizzlers, and a “sharrow” to remind commuters to share the road.
The whole office, including interns and university architect Ian Banner, bonded over a week to add features such as chocolate-wrapper solar panels on the roof.
Beyond the love of gingerbread architecture and bonding crafts, the display brings all of these different community organizations together through a goal of philanthropy.
Every year, the Gingerbread Village also hosts a canned food drive to raise supplies for local food banks. The drive has been an “enormous success” according to the Ford Center.
“The families who come have been incredibly generous, and some of the school groups that visit bring in boxes upon boxes of canned goods,” Meacham said.
The event is free, and donations are voluntary, but last year, the village raised almost $1,000 in cash donations.
“The community has seen it become a tradition to bring their families,” Meacham said. “It’s building every year.”
The Gingerbread Village is open to the public, and a schedule of hours is available on the Ford Center’s website.
Two story time events for big kids and little ones are slated for Dec. 17 and 18, respectively. The exhibit will be on display until Dec. 19.