Five years ago, Sheryl Beltz of Barnesville came up with an idea that would celebrate the spirit of Christmas by bringing people together, encouraging creativity, and supporting a deserving cause.

The result is the annual Gingerbread Contest of the Restaurant at the Station in Tamaqua, featuring miniature homes that capture the imagination. Year in and year out, these delectible dwellings pay tribute to the joys of childhood, an innocent time unaffected by the pressures of the mortgage crisis or the need for energy efficient windows.

The idea came to Sheryl the same year that she and her husband ventured into a new enterprise inside the 1874 Philadelphia and Reading Railroad Passenger Depot.

"We started it the first year we opened," says Beltz, restaurant owner.

It didn't take long for the attraction to gain a following.

"Now, we have people who come in just to see the gingerbread houses. People bring their grandchildren in," she says, explaining that older folks enjoy introducing the children to the magic of gingerbread and the endless creativity displayed in a house of candy.

Beltz says the idea began when she and husband Bill hosted a large gingerbread project at a former restaurant the couple operated.

"When we had our place at Park Place, the chef built a gingerbread house in the middle of the dining room where people could watch the daily progress."

The Beltzes noticed how people took a special interest in the gingerbread house.

When they opened the Tamaqua eatery, they decided to adapt the idea to the new location, and use it in a way that would benefit children.

"We wanted to keep doing it, but to also involve the public and to help a charity."

Now, five years later, Sheryl is delighted at the success of the effort and is happy to be able to showcase the houses while, at the same time, call attention to the U. S. Marine Corps League's Toys for Tots program serving Schuylkill and Carbon counties.

The basic schedule of events follows a similar pattern every year.

The houses are gathered during November and early December, and then displayed until the first weekend after New Year. This year, the entries will be on display until January 10.

The public is invited to pick a favorite. A small donation basket is found next to each house. To cast a vote, one slips a donation into a basket. The donations are accepted until December 20 when money in the baskets is tallied. The basket with the most money wins. The funds are donated to the U. S. Marine Corps League Carbon - Schuylkill Detachment to benefit Toys for Tots. Appropriately, children are the ultimate winners. As for the bakers, the contestant who happened to build the winning gingerbread house receives a prize of $150 donated by Sheryl and Bill Beltz. So, in a sense, everyone comes out a winner.

For one of this year's contestants - Geraldine Schafer of Slatington - the contest took on major proportions. Schafer entered three home-baked masterpieces.

"Each one took about a week," says Schafer, who took classes in the culinary arts but is largely self taught in the field. Actually, Schafer completed a total of 18 gingerbread houses this year. Some of her creations will be displayed at the Slatington Library in addition to the ones already on display at the Tamaqua train station.

John Kocsis, Schafer's boyfriend and number one fan, says Schafer puts her heart and soul into her projects and takes the time necessary to do things right.

"I've been smelling gingerbread baking since July," he says.

Like all of the contestants, Schafer uses clever tricks to achieve uniqueness.

For instance, the front doors of one of her houses are created using sticks of chewing gum. Windows are made out of fruit roll-ups. Pixies are made from fondant and icing.

When she's not baking, Schafer works home-based as a quiltmaker. She says many of the same skills used in quiltmaking can be applied to gingerbread houses.

"The use of color, the creativity, and the designs... and they're pieced together just like quilting." The attention to detail is what makes each house special. One of Schafer's gingerbread houses features sculptured frosting accomplished through use of impression mats.

All of the houses are attractions in their own right.

Beltz says the fact that the contest has lasted five years is a surprise in itself.

"I'm never really sure how many houses I'll get," she notes. After all, folks are busy over the holidays and who has time to bake a gingerbread house?

Still, the public always comes through and Beltz says the quality of the entries this year is particularly inspiring. In past years, at least one or two entries used the Tamaqua train station for inspiration and reproduced the building with precision - crafted of icing, candy and, of course, gingerbread. But this year, there isn't a train station to be found. But that's the fun of it, says Beltz. The entries always challenge the imagination and you never know what will arrive.

"We've had large ones and itty-bitty ones. It's exciting to see what people do with it."

Entries are still being accepted. All entries must abide by contest rules. More information is available at (570) 668-5020.