Twenty bowls of candy in assorted colors filled the dining room table in Laura Burback’s central Casper home. Six girls eyed the gummy bears, gumdrops and lollipops as the candies lay among other assorted sweets.
Could a cookie become a window? A gumdrop into a doorknob?
Around the corner, Burback stood in her kitchen and added a ring of frosting around six gingerbread houses. She knows exactly how long the frosting takes to dry — she’s been making gingerbread houses with neighborhood kids every Christmas for 20 years.
The tradition began with her two daughters but has since expanded to include children from around Casper. About 40 children come over every December for the crafting. Burback estimates children have made about 500 to 600 gingerbread houses at her home in the past two decades.
A small album filled with photos in a kitchen drawer shows kids over the years grinning under Santa hats as they pose with their gingerbread houses. Burback and her youngest daughter, Annie, smiled and laughed at the memories after a gingerbread construction session earlier this month.
“That’s kind of what this is all about,” Burback said of the memories of smiling faces. “It really makes Christmas so special for them. It gets them into the spirit of Christmas.”
The true spirit
The six girls around the table, ages 5 to 11, were eager to start decorating their houses. But first, Burback said, the girls needed to know the three rules. A few had built gingerbread houses with Burback before and repeated the rules with her.
Rule one: If you make a mistake, you get to eat it. Rule two: Try to use something from every bowl on your gingerbread house.
“The third rule,” Burback said, “is you have to have…”
“Fun,” the girls chimed in.
Little hands dipped into the candy bowls and spread frosting to affix the confections into colorful windows, doors and trimming.
The tradition began when Burback’s sister, a special education teacher, visited from California and taught the family to make gingerbread houses.
“I said, ‘Oh my kids probably wouldn’t probably have that much fun,’ and they had a ball,” Burback said. “And ever since then, we’ve just done them every year.”
Soon, Burback started inviting her daughters’ Girl Scout troops and friends. Friends’ siblings joined and the tradition grew through the neighborhood and beyond, she said. Now she tries to reach out to children whose families might not have the resources to buy gingerbread house supplies. This year she’s planning to make gingerbread houses with children at the Wyoming Rescue Mission. She gives the unused candy every year to the mission, where it’s used for a New Year’s Eve party.
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One year, Burback brought all the supplies to make gingerbread houses with children at Life Steps, a transitional housing program for low income families. The effort was part of a community project at Michelle’s school.
“You should have seen their eyes just popped out when they saw all the candy,” Burback said. “They are so grateful and sweet. That’s the true spirit of Christmas right there.”
A magical moment
Burback helped Sophie Harshman, 6, make a car out of a mini Milky Way with M&M tires, and asked what Skittles color she wanted for the steering wheel. Then they made a sled with a flat mini candy bar and candy canes. The girls made ponds with blue frosting and bit goldfish crackers in half to place them. One girl added gummy bears to keep them company, eating a few while she was at it.
Over the years, Burback has learned a few gingerbread house construction secrets and passes them on to each new group of kids. She taught them to make lights with frosting-covered lollipop tops dipped in rainbow sprinkles. When one of the lamps toppled, Burback knew to anchor the lamp in a stand of Lifesavers.
Others send her gingerbread house ideas as well. Her daughter Michelle came home from her first semester at University of Wyoming earning her structural engineering degree with a solution for roof cave-ins.
“Mom, you need double-wall construction,” she said. Now the children can pile on as much candy as they want without worrying about collapse, she said.
The kids always call Burback “Miss Laura.” Her daughters’ friends often ask if she teaches kindergarten. If she weren’t a financial adviser, she’d be a teacher, she said.
“I just love kids and doing crazy projects,” Burback said.
Burback starts looking for candy sales after Thanksgiving and tries to offer different decorating options every year, she said. She estimated she uses about 50 bags of candy, 49 pounds of powdered sugar and six large bags of pretzels a year.
Her daughters are adults now, but still participate every year. Laura’s youngest daughter, Annie, made trees with green frosting spread on a waffle cone to give to the girls earlier this month. Annie, 24, has been making gingerbread houses with her mother since she was 4 and her sister, Michelle Black, was 7.
“I think she’ll do this until she’s 95,” Annie said later. “I don’t think there’s ever going to be a Christmas when she doesn’t.”
Once her daughters as kids brought a friend over who stuttered. By the time he finished politely asking others to pass different kinds of candy, someone else had already grabbed the bowl. He was the last one working on his house. Burback patiently talked with him and handed him one bowl at a time.
“He built the most magical little house; it was so beautiful,” she said. “It just had tons of candy on it.”
As he put on a worn-out coat to leave, he said, “Miss Laura, this is the best Christmas I have ever had.”
“That’s why I do this,” she said. “That is exactly why I do this with the kids, because it just kind of makes that magical moment for them, and they remember it.”