By Tim Sullivan

I have a lengthy resume of being a guest at Christmas and I’m great at it.  I’m polite, I wear my best sweater and I try to buy thoughtful gifts. Typically we travel to my mother-in-law’s in Somerville, New Jersey. The exterior of Pat Riehman’s house looks like a model for a snow globe. Inside everything is cozy, warm, delicious and festive.

The dynamics have changed some though so it was decided that we would host this year. Kristen and I had just built a house, plus four-out-of-the-five famous, NJ Riehman daughters now call Atlanta home. We knew well in advance our visitors would be arriving on Dec. 20 but we thought we’d be in the house way before Dec. 17.

So at the time we should have been hanging stockings and trimming trees we were frantically hanging shower curtains and trimming temporary window treatments to size. Thankfully, Pat drove down several days ahead of the others.  Kristen and I basically just had to unpack, pull our house together and keep a box-o-wine chilled in the fridge. Pat supplied the Christmas. You could call Pat a tour de force de Christmas.

There is a chain store up north called The Christmas Tree Shop. Maybe you’ve heard of it. Perhaps your mother-in-law also gives them your zip code at every checkout in hopes that someday, you too will have a Christmas Tree Shop within a 100-mile radius of your home. Actually, if anyone affiliated with the Christmas Tree Shop happens to read this column I respectfully ask that you bestow a lifetime achievement award upon my mother-in-law, Patricia M. Riehman. You have no greater patron and no greater marketing tool. For when I say that a Nissan Murano traveled from Somerville, NJ to Decatur, GA filled with enough Christmas cheer to rival the jolly old guy’s sleigh, I kid not, especially with that extra storage thingy on her roof rack.

In true Seussian form, the halls of our house were sufficiently decked with ‘ribbons and tags, packages, boxes and bags’ and of course piles of presents for the kids. Then Pat worked her way into the grocery shopping and food preparation, the laundry and the kids’ bedtime routines like she always does. Somehow, our brand new house seemed as warm and inviting as her 110 year old house always has been and the new paint fumes gave way to the scent of homemade cookies. Christmas was on!

And you know how this elf gig works right? You place it up on a different shelf each night leading up to Christmas, it monitors the children’s behavior, reports back to Santa at the North Pole and then returns for its next day of staring.

On day three of this ritual, my sister-in-law, Mary, arrived from Stirling, New Jersey with her four kids so the elf increased his fan base by 200 percent.  That night, I spied a good spot on top of one of the columns flanking the built in shelving. I reached up, carefully placed our floppy legged witness in a pensive position on the edge of the column and then—badunkadunk!—down he went.  There was no cap on the column, and there was not a snowball’s chance in the Heat Miser’s pocket of that little gawker being retrieved.

The next day I smuggled in a replacement elf from Richard’s Variety Store, found a safer perch and waited for the kids to spot him. The younger ones were once again ecstatic. The older ones offered skeptical gems like “that elf looks different.” Buoyed by the promise of toys however, they all soldiered on.

And we did too. That elf will probably be observing the inside of that shelf for many years to come, a time capsule of our first Christmas in this house. What I ought to do is toss a Christmas-themed hand towel and a picture of Pat Riehman in the hollow column as well. The venue was new but that doesn’t matter much because for so many of us, wherever Pat lands at Christmas, is home.

Collin Kelley

Collin Kelley has been the editor of Atlanta Intown for two decades and has been a journalist and freelance writer for 35 years. He’s also an award-winning poet and novelist.

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