BOTKINS — It’s Christmas Eve — a busy day — in Santa’s stable. Everything has to be ready for tonight’s journey across the skies.
The elves are treating the reindeer to apples and carrots. Others are at work inside, mending harnesses and shoveling out the stalls. Santa, in his shirtsleeves, carries a bucket of water to help them out. The pig hopes someone drops an apple that he can steal, and the chicken, done with laying red and green eggs, keeps a watchful eye from the hayloft.
At the back door, the sleigh is loaded with gaily-wrapped gifts, each labeled with a child’s name.
The whole scene has been captured in gingerbread and fondant by Violet and Ken Koenig, of Botkins. The couple have been crafting intricate gingerbread houses for more than a dozen years. The layouts are something their children and grandchildren look forward to every Christmas.
“This year, I wanted to do something different,” Violet said. What they did was Santa’s stable. It features all nine reindeer, with a stall neatly labeled with each name, harnesses with name plates, a jolly snowman, hay bales, straw on the floor, 10 elves busy at work and, of course, Santa. The barn is surrounded by a fence bedecked with holly wreaths, and evergreen trees dot the stableyard.
The whole building is lit with night light bulbs, hidden in the gingerbread rafters. The bulbs are the only things in the layout that are not edible.
Most of the gingerbread layouts the Koenigs have constructed through the years have been centered around houses.
“We started doing it for the grandkids,” Violet said. “The first one was a small, traditional house.” As time has passed, the layouts have grown. These days, they stretch to almost 4 feet in length, 2 1/2 feet in depth and about 2 feet tall. Ideas for them have come from all kinds of places. The couple take photos of houses that catch their eye when they’re driving or are on vacation.
“One was taken from a coloring book,” Violet said. But every one requires invention and creativity on the Koenigs’ part.
“You never see the back and sometimes you don’t see the sides (in the pictures),” she said. Ken and Violet must design those pieces because their layouts are 360-degree displays.
Ken credits Violet with the idea for this year’s stable.
“She comes up with the idea. I sketch something out on paper,” he said. After he decided what the stable would look like, Ken cut pattern pieces from poster board.
“I tape it all together,” he said. At that point, he made whatever changes were necessary for the pieces to fit together.
In the meantime, Violet had mixed the gingerbread. She uses a recipe she found on the Internet. The pieces are baked to Ken’s measurements and he trims them with a small saw. He constructs the buildings each year and Violet does the decorating.
“I put the walls up. She makes it come alive,” Ken said.
The sections of gingerbread have been welded together with royal icing.
“I get out a whole lot of tin cans to prop the pieces up,” Ken said. “I stick a wall to (another wall) and then I move the cans around it.” Sometimes he has used straight pins to hold walls together until the icing hardens. They have never had a piece crumble as they were working with it. But, Violet said, getting the structure up is the hardest part of the process.
“You can hide a lot of mistakes with royal icing,” she laughed.
The roof went on last, but only after the inside had been decorated and populated with gingerbread reindeer and fondant elves.
Those elves had to be constructed in sections, too. Violet formed their boots, legs, torsos, arms and heads individually and had to let each piece dry before adding the next. Legs got added to dry boots, torsos to dry legs, arms to dry torsos and so on.
Reindeer were made of gingerbread, their pieces stuck together with icing. Ken admitted that they were a bit of a challenge, although the most difficult parts of the reindeer were their antlers. The white racks the deer carry were painstakingly cut from fondant.
“We had to fix a lot of antlers,” Violet said.
Some of the cutest details were designed as the layout went together. Ideas kept flowing even as Violet kept working.
“As you’re decorating, you think the elves should have something in their hands,” she said. One got carrots; another, an apple; another, hay to feed the reindeer they stand near.
“Santa needed something in his hand, so I made a bucket,” she said. The pig and chicken were added because there are grandchildren who raise those animals. All 15 grandchildren are recognized in the display. Each of their names is on a package in Santa’s sleigh.
Violet has learned a lot about how to construct pieces by watching television shows and from the Internet. She covered inverted ice cream cones in icing to create the evergreens, a trick she got from TLC network’s “Cake Boss.” The windows are made of gelatin sheets, something she discovered on the Internet.
“Years ago, we melted butterscotch to make the windows, but you couldn’t see through them,” Violet said. The windows are installed before the walls they’re in are put up. The stable doors for each stall were decorated with icing wreaths before they were positioned.
Once the bright green, fondant-covered roof and the gables were in place, the finishing touches were sparkling white patches of royal icing snow.
Ken and Violet put about 80 hours into making the displays, spread over a couple of months. They do it — as they have every year since 2004 — to delight their family.
“They all come home at Thanksgiving. The (gingerbread) house is never finished at that time. That’s deliberate. So there’s anticipation for Christmas,” Ken said. “I think that’s what drives us the most — the twinkle in their eye.”
To see more photos of the Koenigs’ gingerbread stable, visit www.sidneydailynews.com and click on this story. Reach the writer at 937-538-4824.