The first rule of making Christmas cookie houses is there are no rules. But there are many ingredients -- graham crackers, icing, gum drops, M&Ms, marshmallows and a whole lot of laughter and creativity.
The last two are what has kept Jean and Dave Leffler, parishioners of St. Joseph Church in Conway, inviting friends and family to make custom graham cracker houses for the past 31 years.
“I guess the fellowship, the companionship, camaraderie,” Jean Leffler said, of why she’s kept the tradition alive. “It’s not really often you get to be totally creative and messy and not care.”
Jean Leffler’s tradition began at a senior center in Indiana, where she worked as an activities director. Seniors and local students created the houses as a fun Christmas project and Leffler never stopped.
“We started making them at home with friends and then we started making them when we moved,” to Conway 25 years ago. The numbers fluctuate but this year, about 20 were expected to sit at different times around their dining room table to create their own masterpiece. It’s a two-day process, with Leffler and others constructing the houses with graham crackers and icing as the “glue,” sturdy on cardboard covered in tin foil, so they are ready for guests to decorate the next day.
“Only the last three to four years we finally got smart,” Leffler said, recalling some eager decorators before the icing had hardened, resulting in some collapsed homes. “Some people will just put a couple things on and say, ‘I’m done’; nah, you’ve got to have picking stuff to last more than a half hour … put on stuff you like to eat. Or, if you’re on a diet, put on stuff you don’t like.”
On Dec. 21, the first wave of friends and family were hard at work in the early afternoon making the little houses. The Lefflers’ grandchildren, twins Heath and Hunter Davis, 15, of Sherwood, paid close attention to detail. For Heath, it was using a string from a Twizzler pull-apart to dot with icing to hang as a string of Christmas lights on the roof of his home. The party was outside of Hunter’s home, with a fruit slice and pretzel reindeer pulling a sleigh carrying a smiling frosting-covered elf through the snowy yard.
“I love building it and watching how creative I get later in the day,” Hunter said, with Heath recalling with pride his own sprawling L-shaped ranch-style home he created one year. “I am the first ever to do that … No one can match my greatness,” he smiled, with laughter from the group.
The twins have been making the sweet creations since they were toddlers. Their aunt, Cassie Batt, 45, of Conway, has been making them since she was a teenager.
“I enjoy it. I look forward to it,” Batt said.
While carefully setting Red Hots candies on green icing leaves resting on a circle gummy for the perfect Christmas wreath, Batt explained how for years, she’s made both a Nativity scene and a camp ground instead of the run-of-the-mill home.
“It just became a tradition. The first year I made them was just to be different, to try it and then it’s kind of become tradition that I do them, at least one of them a year,” Batt said.
Batt spoke of the new folks that show up each year -- like neighbor Janis Garrett, who was invited and decided that morning “you know what, I think I will.”
“This was a snowman, but it fell over,” she smiled, despite the tiny leaning marshmallows.
St. Joseph parishioner Retha Fausett came last year for the first time and made homes for her granddaughters, including CJ Fausett, 12, who decided to come this year and make one herself.
“This is for my granddaughter who is two. She loves these and M&M’s is one of her favorite things. I made one for her last year and she just went to town on it,” Fausett said. “I love the fellowship with my friends; I’ve known Jean for a long time. This is wonderful to come and do this.”
“I decided to put this on here because it looks more like shingles,” CJ said of the square-shaped cereal adorning her roof. She decided to come with her grandmother this year because, “It looked really fun.”
Then there are the “old hats,” Batt said, one of which is Nancy Frevert, of Little Rock, the “token Methodist” in the bunch, Jean Leffler laughed about her long-time friend.
For more than 20 years, Frevert has come by to make her own creation. In the 1990s, she made a Nativity scene for her father, who died in 2010.
“I made my dad a manger scene. We did teddy grahams for all the animals, Mary and Joseph,” Frevert said. “We didn’t eat it though. I used it for years.”
This year, she was hard at work on a church, cutting up colored gum drops to squeeze in the holes of a twisted pretzel for stained glass windows.
The fun has also stretched beyond the Leffler home. She’s assisted both school and religious education students at St. Joseph to create neat projects. Throughout the years, they’ve also allowed neighborhood children to come and make them, sparing their parents the mess to clean up, Dave Leffler said.
And the fun is not exclusive to Christmas.
“Halloween, Easter ones, Christmas, Thanksgiving; the small little individual haunted houses, those are my favorite,” complete with chocolate graham crackers and candy corn, Jean Leffler said. “Before we put the roof on, I like to put candy in the house as an added trick or treat thing.”
There are staples Jean Leffler and her daughter Cassie buy each year, including M&M’s and pretzels for building log cabins or sticking through marshmallow snowmen to help them stand.
“This year, we haven’t done this before, we’ve got gummy stuff, gummy lifesavers. We don’t use chocolate,” Leffler said. “Chocolate, as it ages in the air, it turns white,” unless it’s candy-coated.
Her husband Dave pointed out that making them is fun, but seeing the smiling faces on those they give them to is what makes all the hard work worth it.
“It’s just whatever your imagination leads to … They’re so much fun to give them away. The making them is just OK, it’s making them, but the giving them away is what makes it” special, he said.
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