In May, Christmas is the last thing on most people’s minds, but for Janet Gustafson it’s when the wheels start turning about her massive gingerbread village.
She’s been creating the display for the past five decades.
Gustafson designs the entire project, which is never the same from year to year and she uses a variety of skills in putting it together. She’s a baker. An artisan. An engineer. A
poet. A builder. An electrician. A storyteller. A troubleshooter. A tour guide. A historian. A sculptor. A visionary. A lover of Christmas with unlimited amounts of childlike enthusiasm and optimism.
Gustafson has been constructing gingerbread houses for as long as she can remember, but it was when she moved to Flossmoor about 24 years ago that she enlarged her display, dedicating an entire room to it for much of the year.
These are not your typical, basic, one-room, one-level enclosed pieces. Gustafson’s houses are more of a gingerbread-dollhouse hybrid and each is open on one side to examine the interior with the opposite side having windows so you can look in from the outside.
Electricity runs to each one to power strands of lights, miniature trains, musical elements and moving, mechanical pieces. Inside you’ll find furniture, figures and lots of accessories.
In May, she begins designing, creating new accessories and she even does some baking early on to start construction. Every year you’ll find a different scene and a different theme. After about six months of planning, baking and construction, she opens her display for a Cancer Resource Centre fundraiser, the Flossmoor Winterfest and for friends and small groups in November. She hosts visitors for about three months.
In February, Gustafson takes a hammer to her creation and gives herself a little breather before getting started again.
“A lot of people think I’m nuts because I make it and then I throw it away,” she said. “But I wouldn’t want to keep it. It takes up too much room.”
Each year Gustafson writes a poem to go along with the theme and this year’s is about celebrating differences. It includes a troll who orders all the elves to build a gingerbread village with identical cottages and an elf who stands up to the bully and traps him in a maze so that the elves in the village are free to create houses that are each unique. The poem is shared with individuals and smaller groups. Gustafson includes a scavenger hunt and puzzles to solve.
The full village has about a dozen houses and additional scenes in the middle with ice skaters and large trees made of frosting. In each house are dozens of little pieces, many of which Gustafson has created or repurposed. Some of the elf figures were made by her out of a type of modeling clay after she could no longer find similar figures to purchase. Inside the houses are miniature gingerbread men that are made of real gingerbread. You’ll find sheets of cookies that she has created and painted.
A fan of board games, you’ll find miniatures of many classic games, like Monopoly, Clue and Scrabble within the houses. Other little touches include real family photos that have been scaled down and placed in miniature frames that are on display in the houses.
As impressive as the construction of the houses and the miniature pieces are, it’s the mechanical elements that really give this village that “Wow!” factor. One house has an old sewing machine that moves. Another features an old mechanical typewriter. There’s one with a giant teapot that a mouse creeps out of. A candy conveyor is part of another house. One of the most elaborate has cakes that rotate. It’s something that really has to be seen in person to be appreciated.
Although Gustafson’s late husband was a structural engineer, he didn’t have anything to do with the elaborate engineering feat of arranging the village.
“I find the mechanicals and then re-do them or make them a centerpiece and work around them,” she said. “You have to look at things through a different eye. You can use almost anything — you just really have to look at it.”
In recent years, Gustafson has relied heavily on a grandson, Jeff Gustafson of Frankfort, for help in bringing everything together. The high school senior can more easily get under the table to secure wiring and lift panels from place to place.
“It’s a lot to do,” she said. “It takes a week or more just to put in lights. The frosting takes over a week, too. It takes time. There’s no way around it.” By the way, the frosting — she used 50 pounds of it.
Despite all the time and labor involved, Gustafson shows no signs of slowing down and is happy to open her home to those interested in seeing her gingerbread creations. She loves to have the opportunity to show off her south suburban neighborhood.
“A lot of people come from the north and west suburbs and are really surprised that it’s such a nice area,” she said. “I like to support our area. And Christmas is a difficult time for some people, but everyone leaves my house with a smile. It makes a lot of people happy and I like that.”
With a degree in political science and history, her professional background has included laboratory work at a children’s hospital, instructing English as a Second Language classes and authoring a book, “The Amber Diary,” inspired by a trip she took to Sweden. She’s a mother of two and grandmother of seven.
“I like to do a lot of things,” she said. “You never stop learning.”
Gustafson’s display was part of Flossmoor Winterfest on Dec. 9, when she opened her home during the festival to let members of the community see the scene she crafted.