IT’S OFFICIAL. CHRISTMAS is officially in effect at my Clark Griswold-style residence.

It began almost secretly way back in October, when this Griswold clone watched his first airing for the year of “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation,” with Griswold, crazy Cousin Eddie and the rest of the gang.

Since then, I have watched all or part of the movie, oh, perhaps a dozen times or so. I haven’t figured out yet which is my favorite scene; the one with Griswold at the perfume counter or the one where Griswold ogles a swimsuit model in his backyard swimming pool.

Then again, I think the squirrel in the Christmas tree ranks near the top of the funny meter. About that scene, instead of terrorizing my family, if a squirrel were to hide out in my family Christmas tree, he would very quickly wind up as squirrel stew.

Speaking of my family Christmas tree, an 8-foot beautiful balsam fir now graces our living room. Lights are on it, lots and lots of lights, along with ornaments of all shapes and sizes, but to the best of my knowledge there is no squirrel hiding anywhere in the thickly-branched boughs.

Some of the ornaments, those passed down to me by my mother, are at least 70 years old, possibly older than that. They are made of sturdy metal, no plastic, and the painted-on colors are as bright and vivid today as the day they were made. 

There also are a bunch of thin wooden ornaments, all of them painted by my wife the first Christmas we had together some 46 years ago. A few of them have some tiny bare spots where paint is missing, along with some slight chips out of the wood, compliments of various pups and full-grown dogs we’ve had over the years, but I wouldn’t have our tree decorated without those ornaments.

Not to brag on myself, but again this year, a lot of miles and time spent in the woods last spring and this fall have resulted in a wild balsam fir from the forest that I’ll put up against any store-bought tree you can find when it comes to form and fullness.

As long as I can walk on my own two legs I will never subject our house to a store-bought tree. There is something about a wild tree that makes it far better than one from a tree farm, not the least of which is the excitement and joy that comes from tramping for hours through thickets of balsam looking for the perfect Griswold family tree. And oh yeah, I used a saw to cut mine down, no ripping a 20-foot tree out of the ground by its roots as Griswold did.

For those of us who hold to the Christian faith there is only one thing truly important about Christmas and that is the birth of Christ. I never forget that, but I also can tell you that finding, cutting and decorating the family Christmas tree is the next best thing about Christmas for me.

I don’t know that I have the words to describe how soothing it is for me to be in the woods looking long and hard for the perfect balsam to bring home for our family tree. All I know is that when I am wandering the woods, craning my neck as I check out balsam after balsam, rejecting many before finally choosing the one, I am as much at peace as a human can possibly be.

As I inspect each tree I see perfect beauty, even in the Charlie Brown-type which no self-respecting tree hunter would dare dream of putting in his house. In a balsam fir I see what I consider to be one of God’s greatest creations ever, right up there with native brook trout and wild ducks.

In some cases I have staked out a young balsam sapling, maybe only 4 feet tall at the time, but filled with the potential of someday becoming my family Christmas tree, until one year, it was tall enough and full enough to occupy a place of honor in our home.

Always I walk through stands of balsam, circling around many trees, looking from every angle before deciding if one is worthy of consideration to be a family tree.

This year, I had spied out four good possibilities in early fall and after a repeat inspection of all of them, I finally selected one, cut it and found it not to be wanting.

Now it stands, stately and beautiful, in the corner of our living room. When it comes to a 9-month-old yellow lab with sharp teeth and a penchant for chewing, so far, so good. Between his tail and that of an 8-year-old golden retriever, no real damage has been done to tree, lights or ornaments, yet.

Soon, a pile of presents will appear around the tree, just a few at first, then more and more as our children add to our largess. Well, maybe the only largess this year will be for my wife as my son and daughter have affirmed that my Christmas, birthday, Father’s Day and all other days where presents might be called for have been covered for the next 10 years or so.

The present responsible for that, given to me for Father’s Day back in June was, of course, a then 8-week-old yellow lab, who already has proven worthy of 10 years worth of presents with his duck retrieving exhibition in October, at the age of 6 months.

Then again, as the guy who footed the bill for $1,000 trombones, car payments for an elder daughter when she didn’t have the proverbial pot to do anything in, braces, and various and sundry other big-ticket items provided out of the goodness of his heart, I would think a few small trinkets from my children might be appropriate under the tree come Christmas Day. That would ensure a “hap-hap-happy” Christmas for all.

Griswold would be proud of us.