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MILDRED and Ed Atkinson, married in November...


MILDRED and Ed Atkinson, married in November 1935 and living in an apartment, decided to have 15 or so friends over. It went well, that party on Christmas Eve, so they had another in 1936.

And here it is 1993, and last week the annual Atkinson eggnog-plus pulled 'em in again, from many distances and directions but full of the same seasonal cheer. Is there, anywhere in Baltimore, a private party that has been going on longer?

Mrs. Atkinson, celebrated also in her time as a housing-law guardian for C.P.H.A. and as director of social action for the Maryland Council of Churches, nowadays exults in the careers (moviemaking, woodworking) of children and grandchildren. But come December, the Christmas tree question arises, prodding her hostess instinct. Why must the tree her family puts up always reach that high livingroom ceiling? So no one'll think the ,, party itself is shrinking.

Some things do change. The Atkinsons moved to a house and the date was advanced to Dec. 23. Back when, the action was from 9 p.m. on into the smallest hours. Now, 8 and mostly over before midnight. As many as 140 people, but what with age and dying, 1993's crowd was only about 90; the farthest-back champ: Frances Froelicher, Hans' widow.

The hardest time was in 1984. Hold the party anyway, said Ed just before he died; but that was November and Mildred needed time. Next year, the party resumed. Now a few say, wouldn't afternoon be better? Mildred, at 84, hoots at the notion.

All along, her formula has been food. Get 'em to eat and they won't be too looped, driving home. Audrey Brooks fixes it: beef, ham, turkey and (what they hit the hardest now) shrimp. Glass glasses have given way to plastic, for rye or gin, then scotch, then vodka, then white wine -- by now, forms of soda water. Afterward Ed, an antiques expert, used to empty 60 or 70 ashtrays; by now, Mildred doesn't even set them out.

Political and business deals are done in these rooms, among people all squashed together; newspaper gossip darts about; social history has been made by Furman Templeton, Verda Welcome, Linwood Koger, Dave Glenn. The rowhouse neighbors, far from minding the noise, come too. This year, Cheryl Moeller on one side, having moved to Connecticut, sent a plum pudding; Alma Cripps, on the other side, finished the steaming.

Now is the time of year for all good souls to come to the aid of their Baltimore party, be it for the first time or for the 58th.

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