Those stopping by or driving past Rita Ruffner’s house on Mary Street in Derry Township can’t help getting into the holiday spirit after seeing the festive horse-drawn sleigh decorating the front yard.
Her children are hoping the Christmas display will also help raise awareness for the American Heart Association and inspire the spirit of giving to the charity in their late mother’s memory.
Ruffner, who died unexpectedly of a heart attack on Nov. 9, had always gone all out in preparation for Christmas, her daughter, Colleen McElhaney of Latrobe, said.
“She just loved Christmas, loved being with family and buying presents,” McElhaney said. “She overdid it all, but that’s just what she loved. She loved her family.”
Adding a horse-drawn sleigh to her holiday décor was a longtime wish, and one that her son, Jeffrey Michaels-Ruffner, was able to make a reality as a surprise 80th birthday gift this year.
“For years, she talked about wanting a sleigh. How do you give your mother a sleigh? It was something she had always talked about and I just decided to go ahead and do it,” Michaels-Ruffner said. “She loved Christmas. Like, all year-round Christmas music, she shopped for Christmas decorations all year-round. She lived for Christmas. It was something I just really wanted to do and finally figured out how I could make it happen.”
Michaels-Ruffner, who lives in Las Vegas where he works as a musician and entertainer, completed the project during trips home to visit family, working in secret in his mom’s garage.
He drew on his artistic talent, as well as skills honed during his time working in set design and as an art director in the film industry in Los Angeles before his move to Las Vegas.
“It was all freehand,” he said. “I just drew a picture of a sleigh and started from there.”
Michaels-Ruffner got the sleigh and horse finished shortly after a surprise birthday party for his mom on Oct. 26.
“It was just something she had always wanted,” McElhaney said of the horse and sleigh. “She always decorated and kind of put on displays in the past. My brother had come home and decorated for her. Him being a set designer, he just really came up with different creative things. But she always wanted the horse and sleigh, so that was kind of a big feat to take on. It was really just a nice surprise for her.”
McElhaney said having a horse pulling the sleigh rather than reindeer was an important detail.
“For years and years, it was always, ‘One day, I want to have a horse out there,’” she said. “We had said about the reindeer and my mom just had this way of thinking that, ‘If we had reindeer, they would be flying. If Santa Claus is just out riding, there would be a horse. He’s not flying, he’s out in the yard, so he’s going to have a horse.’”
“Her idea was that everybody could come up and take pictures with it and use it for their Christmas cards. That people would just go ahead and enjoy it,” McElhaney added. “She wanted the kids to come up and she’d tell us to call all of our friends and have them come. We wanted everybody that wanted to come by and see it to take advantage of it.”
With their mother’s passing, McElhaney and Michaels-Ruffner said they hope the holiday display can also help raise awareness for organ donation and donations to the American Heart Association. Ruffner and her late husband, Jerry, both died of heart attacks.
“My mother was never an organ donor, but six months ago she went and had her ID changed because of a family member that is in need of a heart transplant,” McElhaney said. “She said she was doing that for somebody because she knows they’re looking for somebody to help our family member and she wanted to do that in return. She was a donor and that was something we thought, if people came up and enjoyed it, maybe they could make a donation to the American Heart Association in her name.”
“If it’s going to draw attention, I want it to be for that,” Michaels-Ruffner said. “The reason we even want to draw attention to it is that it’s really to have awareness of how my parents both had heart problems, if it can bring any type of good out of it in that way.”