Christmas time at Gate of Heaven

First Posted: 12/8/2014

DALLAS — Gate of Heaven Church welcomed Mr. and Mrs. Santa Claus as they made their way through the crowd assembled for the annual Gingerbread Contest and Christmas Festival. Santa took time to greet young and old attendees with a smile or a hug, eventually settling in a chair decorated for the season.

John “Whitey” and Bette Gillespie who stepped into the role of the merry couple did so with kindness and enthusiasm.

“Whitey planned out the whole event,” said Carol Yezilski, an event coordinator. “He wanted his arrival to be a surprise to add to the authenticity of the characters and the excitement of the children.”

The couple, pillars of the church and community, together volunteer for worthy causes throughout the Dallas area.

“It is a privilege to know them,” said Yezilski.

Reese Yanik, 2 ½, and his 9-month-old brother, Chris, made their way to Santa’s lap with a great deal of anticipation and enthusiasm.

The first item on Reese’s list was a Barney playhouse which Santa made note of as he provided her a piece of candy and a big smile.

Parents Chris and Amber said the event provided an opportunity to share quality holiday time while grabbing a bite to eat and participating in the fun activities provided.

Following her visit with Santa, Reese and her mom made their way into a life size gingerbread house which evoked smiles and laughter from both.

The fun-detailed structures were crafted from cardboard by event coordinator Kathy Selner and provided for proud parents to snap a colorful photo of happy children perfect for Christmas cards.

A favorite of young and old attendees was the chance to dress up as nativity scene characters, including Mary, Joseph, a shepherd, an angel, a drummer boy and even a donkey within a stable. It was an opportunity for great photos and for reflection on the Bible story.

“Last year, it was definitely a favorite,” said volunteer Michael Parmelee, 15.

For those feeling creative, a craft table was set up providing supplies and instruction for creating colorful Christmas cards and paper snowflakes.

Melanie Selner, 10, assisted participants in the art of snowflake making, carefully folding white paper with no two, of course, being alike.

Youngsters were able to direct their Christmas cards to a local nursing home or to Father Edward Scott.

Coordinator Barbara Michaels said the event, which was open to the public, combined the spiritual and the secular.

“Father (Daniel) Toomey is all about bringing the community together and celebrating the holidays,” she said.

Food was also available at a nominal cost for those who arrived hungry. Chicken noodle soup, “whimpies” and homemade desserts were shared over a cup of coffee or hot chocolate as participants took a moment to unwind.

Raffle tickets were available at the door and attendees could also enter the “guess the number of chocolate kisses” in a glass jar filled with the yummy treats.

Eighth-grader Grace Aiello joined the church’s youth group choir in renditions of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” and “We Need a Little Christmas.”

“It’s a good event for people who want to socialize, get something to eat and listen to holiday music,” said Aiello. “It is a good afternoon.”

Wyoming Seminary’s bell choir also performed at the event, which Carol Carroll, of Dallas, called “a fabulous addition” to the day’s activities.

The centerpiece of the event was the Gingerbread House Contestant, with rows of carefully-constructed sweet structures drawing the attention of festival-goers. Participants in the contest could enter in several different categories, including family, individual, scout and school groups and professional. Entries were categorized as “kit” or “non-kit.”

The gingerbread contest’s “People’s Choice Award” was the most coveted and allowed attendees to pick their absolute favorite from any category. The award, as voted by the public, was won by the Contardi family, of Dallas.

In choosing, participants noted detailed candy work on roofs, themed houses and originality.

Michaels looks forward to continuing the event in the future, crediting volunteers, young and old, decked in special yellow T-shirts, with making its success possible.

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