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She’s Toronto’s gingerbread lady

Doris Matyas’ holiday tradition generates happiness for its participants and funds for local causes

Doris Matyas with her great-granddaughter, 7-year-old Sophie Bowman -- Janice Kiaski

TORONTO — Today marks a one-time departure from traditional Valley Life stories you find on this Sunday section page.

It’s different in two ways. For one thing, I’m writing it first-person style because I was involved in the story itself as a participant.

The other difference is that it’s taking up the whole page and then some, including the space at the bottom where you’d normally find and read my Sunday column, hopefully with great interest.

Today, I’m combining the two and counting on your reading this with great interest.

The change this week, though, means I can devote more space to more pictures I took during my brief hands-on experience recently as a gingerbread barn decorator.

Doris Matyas from Toronto has been after me for several years to come to the Gem City when she carries out this time-honored tradition of hers on the third Saturday of November, but I’ve always had a schedule conflict.

I promised her that this year would be different. I put it on my calendar, determined to come and decorate a gingerbread house on Nov. 16 at the Cornerstone Church of Toronto.

Doris did me one better. “I’ll make you a barn to decorate,” she promised, given I have horses, and she knows I love them.

In the months leading up to this event, I refreshed my memory about why Doris organizes this highly anticipated community activity sponsored by the Toronto Coalition for Revitalization, of which she is a committee member. Its participants like decorating the gingerbread houses, and the money donated to do this benefits local causes, helping the less fortunate in Toronto.

That’s a win-win.

There’s a $15 donation for a child — or a big kid adult — to decorate a gingerbread house and take it home.

This year that translated into 56 houses with more than $800 split between Helping Hands Toronto food pantry and Toys for Toronto.

Originally I had planned to make this a holiday outing with my 6-year-old great niece and let her do the barn decorating, but when that fell through, I did the next best thing – I made my husband go.

Better Half’s creative so I figured he could be my decorating consultant and assistant.

I had checked ahead of time with Doris for some suggestions on what to bring for decorating the barn since this was all new to me. A Pringles can for a silo, candy pieces, pointed ice cones for to be trees and maybe some mini wheat cereal for the roof were among her recommendations.

When we arrived that afternoon, the room was abuzz with activity with children and some adults already decorating in earnest.

And there was a welcoming Doris, wearing her traditional gingerbread lady outfit, complete with a cap.

Better Half and I got our bowls of colored and white icing — the mortar that held the barn decorations in place – and made our way to our spot. We tried to get a grip on how to get started, looking at the group of children next to us who obviously had this craft mastered.

We muddled through and were happy enough with our barn but way more amazed by everyone else’s creativity. The variety was pretty impressive.

Making gingerbread houses is nothing new to Doris, who has been at this for more than 20 years.

It started as an at-home family holiday activity with her granddaughters, but in more recent years, it graduated into being the community activity. For more than 10 years now, the third Saturday in November is gingerbread house decorating day at the Cornerstone Church.

Doris makes at least 50 houses every year – last year it was 62, a banner year.

This year it was 56, but regardless of the number, she gets a kick out of doing it.

Participants have to register in advance, so she knows how many gingerbread houses to make, and that process might begin in September.

Her get-prepared drill has been to do about four houses a night, and after she glues them together, she put them up high on shelves to keep them away from her dogs.

The preparation and baking process involves a couple of hours each evening.

Making the event happen each year involves a lot of help. The TCFR, for example, provides money for baking ingredients; Doris’ husband, Fred, cuts and tapes together the cardboard on which the gingerbread houses are stored; and her friend Mary Ann Parker helps frost the inside of the houses to keep them sturdy. A group of friends caravan in six or seven cars to help transport the gingerbread houses to the Cornerstone Church, which extends hospitality in accommodating the event.

It all adds up to a special holiday tradition that makes a lot of people happy this time of year,

And that includes me, too.

(Kiaski, a resident of Richmond, is a staff columnist and community editor for the Herald-Star and The Weirton Daily Times. She can be contacted atjkiaski@heraldstaronline.com.)

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