Lanier Village Estates
Address: 4000 Village View Drive, Gainesville
Phone number: 678-450-3000
A snowman strumming a guitar around a campfire. Children playing in the snow and bundled-up couples walking mitten in mitten.
It sounds like a scene from an animated Christmas movie, but this holiday dreamworld has a special twist — it’s edible.
The culinary staff at Lanier Village Estates brought a sugary Christmas scene to life this weekend with its annual gingerbread village in the clubhouse of the retirement community off Thompson Bridge Road. The yearly display made almost entirely of gingerbread and royal icing has become a must-see for residents and their families as well as community members, Hulsey said.
“It’s fun for us, and it’s fun for the residents,” Culinary Director Matt Hulsey said. “It’s now to the point where it’s almost expected. It’s something we enjoy, and we want to continue that tradition.”
Each year the village has a theme, such as a ski resort, a holiday town with a train and a beach boardwalk. This year Hulsey wanted a traditional aesthetic. He and his team of five staff members created an edible country farmhouse scene complete with livestock and hay made from shredded wheat.
The display features a large white farmhouse and “sleigh port” sitting atop a hill with a barn and a stream below. The house and barn are made from painted gingerbread, as well as the “stone” and “brick” pathways that cross the property. Snowmen, farm animals and people made from a hard sugar base called fondant are arranged across the house’s “snowy,” icing-covered lawn.
Hulsey said the nearly 80 pounds of icing were used in decorating the scene. He used melted sugar and corn syrup dyed with blue food coloring to create water in the yard and yellow color for tinted glass windows in the house.
Hulsey said the house’s white columns and tall windows are inspired by homes in Savannah.
Flavia Campos, who has been a cook at Lanier Village Estates since 2002, created 38 fondant figures for the display. She said she spent up to four hours shaping and hand-painting each figure, giving them each unique faces, coats and decorations. Campos also crafted several Christmas trees, piping green royal icing to make individual boughs.
“It’s like a playhouse,” Campos said. “It makes me very happy to see the joy and how it lights up everyone’s faces.”
The team began planning in October the display’s design, which sits on an 8-foot-by-4-foot frame of lumber and chicken wire. Hulsey said assembly began before Thanksgiving and estimated around 300 hours of work went into constructing it.
Former Culinary Director Dave McTigue, who is now Mid-South Director for ACTS Retirement Life Communities, started the gingerbread village tradition. A culinary school graduate, McTigue got the idea from a chef he worked with at the Hyatt Corporation and has been doing the displays at Lanier Village Estates since 2004.
“It’s kind of a country, feel-good Christmas,” McTigue said of this year’s display. “It’s just one of those things that brings a lot of smiles and a lot of joy and something to talk about and feel good about. It’s great to see the tradition go on.”
For longtime residents, the gingerbread village has become an event to look forward to all year. Marge Miller has lived at Lanier Island Estates for 15 years and says the displays get better each year.
“It’s a wonderful thing,” she said. “It’s always to perfection. Everybody that comes in loves it.”
Hulsey said each year he wants guests to have that “Christmas morning shock and excitement” when they see the new design.
“There’s kind of a wow factor when they walk in the door,” he said. “We want them, right when they walk in to smell icing and see the lights. We have a lot of children come in over the holidays, so it’s really cool to see their eyes light up too.”
The house will remain on display until the week after New Year’s Day, after which Hulsey said the scene is destroyed by throwing vegetables at it.