By TYLER ELLYSON
KEARNEY – Sometimes she’s an elf. Other times she’s a Christmas tree, reindeer or candy cane.
No matter which over-the-top outfit she chooses, Heather Rhinehart hopes to see the same reaction.
“I just want to bring people joy.”
It’s safe to say nobody spreads more holiday cheer at the University of Nebraska at Kearney.
An office associate for UNK Online and Graduate Studies, Rhinehart owns close to 30 Christmas sweaters – and counting. Most of them light up, sparkle or jingle, and some are paired with matching hats, headbands or slippers.
“I’ve always loved Christmas,” the Arapahoe native said. “When we were little kids, we would get up at 5 o’clock in the morning to open presents. We decorated at home a lot, too.”
Her hard-to-miss holiday attire didn’t become a tradition until many years later.
Rhinehart assists with the Triangle Cross Barrel Racing Winter Series in McCook, and the group decided to host an ugly sweater contest in 2016. She purchased a snowman sweater then added lights and other adornments for the event.
“From there, it just continued,” Rhinehart explained. “If I’m somewhere and I see something, I pick it up.”
Her collection includes clothing from Walmart, eBay, garage sales and thrift stores, but most of it has been altered to enhance the holiday flair. Bells, lights and pompoms are some of her go-to embellishments.
“I’ve always loved the lights. We used to go look at the lights, too. That’s why most of my sweaters have Christmas lights on them,” she said.
Snowmen are another favorite. “I have about three of those.”
Starting Dec. 1, Rhinehart wears a different holiday outfit to work each day, delighting those who see her around campus.
“People are always excited to see what’s next. There’s always something to talk about. You come to work thinking it’s just another day, but she brings something fun and exciting, something that makes you smile and brings some holiday cheer to the office,” said Sharon Johnson, an online program support specialist.
Johnson really enjoys the candy cane outfit and anything that lights up.
“The creativity is amazing,” she said. “She has something for every theme – elf and candy cane and snowman and tree. They’re all so different and she created them all herself. She took a regular outfit from a store and then jazzed it up and made it her own.”
Rhinehart dressed up as an elf when she and her co-workers delivered presents for families at Meadowlark Elementary School. That “got kids talking.” She also decorates her department’s space inside the Communications Center each year and drives a car accessorized with reindeer antlers and a big, red Rudolph nose.
Along with her regular duties, Rhinehart is currently filling in part time at the Plambeck Early Childhood Education Center, allowing her to share this holiday spirit with even more people on campus.
“We all love her holiday outfits,” said Chelsea Bartling, director of the Plambeck Center. “I am all about dressing up and making things fun for the students, and that is what she is doing each day.
“Parents and students are excited to see what her outfit is for the day. Some families have even said that it is a discussion on their way to school.”
That’s exactly the kind of joy Rhinehart is looking for.