Laird: It’s the time for ‘something really nice’

By John Laird, Columbian Editorial Page Editor

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Cousin Eddie had no money to buy Christmas presents. But when Clark Griswold offered to pick up the tab, Cousin Eddie became flushed with yuletide glee, and he murmured tenderly, “Oh boy, this is a surprise, Clark. This is a real nice surprise … yeah, just a real nice surprise. Here’s a little list. Alphabetical, starting with (his wife) Catherine. And if it wouldn’t be too much, I’d like to get something for you, Clark. Something really nice!”

That conversation in the 1989 movie “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” tops my list of favorite scenes from holiday movies. For years now, it’s become a tradition in our family for me to wave a dollar bill at someone and — projecting bold benevolence — authorize that person to purchase “something really nice” for herself or himself. Strangely, I’m the only one who places much value in this tradition.

As many of us grow older, we become wedged in a Christmas dilemma. We are hard-pressed to identify stuff that we want or need to receive as gifts. Even the vast Internet provides little help. We vainly scan our own online wish lists — personalized ever so carefully — and then we click excitedly on “we have recommendations for you” … and we just sigh indifferently.

This seasonal frustration is a good thing, I suppose. It signals that we’re simply all gifted out. And, instead of obsessing over our entitlement to gifts, we are led to focus on the joy of giving.

For several years now, I’ve been tempted to issue a Dec. 1 mandate to loved ones and friends: “This year, please give all gifts to me in the form of donations to charities.” But I have yet to execute that particular plan. There’s this gnawing suspicion that, somewhere out there in the neon world where “R” is spelled backward, there’s this one lonely gift, waiting to be snatched up and given to just me. Something really nice! And who am I to prevent the delivery of that gift to its rightful destination?

A ‘first Christmas without’

Christmas marks a time of birth, but for me it also brings reminders of life’s finality. Through the many years, three of my dearest loved ones have passed away during the week before Christmas. One left on Christmas Eve.

But life goes on, and by now I know that my dark loss cannot extinguish the Christmas star. In fact, the opposite always happens. Christmas shines a loving light on those departed people who gave so much to me. The season of joy and giving guides us through the pain. It’s a therapeutic boost that’s unavailable any other time of the year.

Today, many of you stand timidly at a daunting crossroads. This will be your “first Christmas without” someone who cannot be replaced.

For me, this is the first Christmas without best friend Ken, my college roommate and a man who agreed to be the best man at my wedding despite knowing full well that I am the best at nothing. He’s gone now, but experience has taught me two ways to make it through this “first Christmas without.”

One tip I have is to never pass up a chance at a hearty guffaw. Even as your loss weighs on the mind, allow all of the Cousin Eddies in your life to flaunt their magnificent buffoonery.

For example, think back on Cousin Eddie’s early-morning explanation to a neighbor about why a certain tank in his RV needed to be purged into the storm sewer. Smile at thoughts of how the Griswold turkey, when first carved, ruptured like a pierced dirigible. Chuckle at the memory of Clark, high atop a ladder, staple-gunning his sleeve to a string of exterior lights.

My second tip for navigating through holiday grief is to remember the source of the most genuine Christmas gifts. Your highest-valued and longest-lasting presents are not wrapped and waiting under your tree. They’re not the doodads isolated in the cyberworld on your wish list, waiting to be plucked by people who are too busy to think for themselves.

No, the gifts that matter most are the folks around you who carry out all of those family traditions, then start new ones, the loved ones who smile at what you gave them, but smile even more broadly at what they gave you. These gifts are not found on Cousin Eddie’s list. They’re found in your heart. They are eternal. Something really nice!

Merry Christmas, everyone!