During the height of the Cold War, Jennifer Elmore never forgot the warmth brought by the care packages she and her family received in Bindlach, West Germany, while her dad, at the time a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army, kept watch with his troops near the Czech border.
Now her award-winning entry in the 22ndNational Gingerbread House Competition ― “A Soldier’s Christmas” ― honors those memories as well as veterans, active service members, and the families and charities standing behind them.
Jennifer’s gingerbread creation is on display at The Omni Grove Park Inn in Asheville, North Carolina, through Jan. 1 along with other Top-10 ribbon winners in the national competition. The contest this year drew 150 entries from across the U.S.
“Unless you have been in that situation, it’s hard to really understand just what those care packages mean, or how tough the holidays can be for military families as they try to stay connected,” says Jennifer, a relationship manager in the Raleigh, North Carolina, office of Wells Fargo’s ultra-high-net-worth business, Abbot Downing.
“When I was driving down the mountain from last year’s competition, I thought about my experiences as a little girl, and knew what I wanted to create this year,” she says. “I hope in some small way this honors the sacrifices service members and their families make for us every day, but especially at this time of year.”
More than 300 hours in the making, Jennifer’s entry began taking shape shortly after New Year’s Day. She knew the focal point would be a soldier opening a care package from his family. Making the package one from Operation Gratitude was her way of saying “thank you” to the nonprofit.
Each year, the organization sends more than 150,000 care packages to new service members and those deployed overseas, wounded warriors and those caring for them, veterans, and first responders. Every package includes a letter of appreciation.
Carolyn Blashek, founder of Operation Gratitude, says, “Jennifer’s creation is stunning and deeply moving. She captures the emotions of the troops far from home as well as the love and concern of the American people who sent the package. We are honored that Jennifer devoted her efforts to representing our courageous U.S. military and the enormous support of citizens.”
Personal touches abound in the piece Jennifer and her husband, Mike, created. Mike made the wooden base the soldier kneels on ― the Great Seal of the United States of America ― while Jennifer made the soldier and package. Among the gifts: a table-top Christmas tree and coffee cups inside the package, and the stocking and card the soldier holds.
Jennifer’s oldest daughter, Eva, wrote the card’s message, which Jennifer scanned, shrunk to size, and printed with edible ink on rice paper. She did the same thing with the family photos that adorn the package flaps.
According to the rules of the competition, entries can’t be wider or taller than 2 feet, and must be made from at least 75 percent gingerbread, although the use of other ingredients — such as gum paste, fondant, chocolate, and pressed sugar — is encouraged. Every element used other than the base must be edible.
“The detail on ‘A Soldier’s Christmas’ is absolutely beautiful, and the theme is followed all the way through the piece, which is what made it a Top 10 in the adult category,” says judge and master pastry chef Steven Stellingwerf. “We were all touched by its message.”
Figuring out how to translate an idea into gingerbread is Jennifer’s favorite part about the contest, she says, which she first entered in 2012. Her debut entry (a German Christmas pyramid) finished in the Top 10, and “The Fantastical Christmas Contraption” she made in 2013 won third place.
“I had no idea what I was getting myself into,” Jennifer says. “But these gingerbread creations have become a holiday tradition for our family, and we’ve made some wonderful friends with the other gingerbread house makers. We share tips and encourage each other. We know there’s only one grand-prize winner and two other cash prizes in each category, and we all want to win. But most of all, we love the reactions from the hundreds of people who make trips to the hotel just to see what we’ve lovingly made.”
Jennifer joined the other Top 10 winners in each category (adult, teen, youth, and child) as they stood with their families and entries in the hotel’s ballroom Nov. 17.
The crowd of about 400 people left their chairs to file past all the houses, meet their creators, and see their handiwork up close.
A couple stopped in front of “A Soldier’s Christmas,” admiring it for some time. “We were both in the military,” they told Jennifer. “Thank you. This means a lot.”