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It’s going to be the hap- hap- happiest Christmas ever for the Donaldson family as they celebrate their first one in Nebraska.
When Dan and Diane Donaldson moved from Grand Junction, Colo., to 510 5th Street in Neligh last February, their neighbors likely didn’t know the Griswold family had come to town. But they found out in November, when he lit up the east side of Neligh with all of his Christmas lights.
“They call me Clark Griswold. I just love Christmas,” Donaldson said with a grin while dressed head to toe in an elf costume and topped off with pointed ears on his stocking hat.
The house made such an impression it won top honors for residential lights in the annual lighting contest from the City of Neligh and Neligh Chamber of Commerce. The Donaldsons will receive $100 off their lighting bill as the prize. In the other categories, the United Methodist Church won for best religious lights and Brett and Dorian Morrison won for top commercial lights.
Unlike the “Christmas Vacation” movie starring Chevy Chase, Donaldson said he didn’t have a drumroll when lighting up the town. He’s also a little more prepared and only has lights on from 5 p.m. until 11 p.m. thanks to timers.
“After all the years of being Clark Griswold, I’ve learned,” he said with a chuckle. “Instead of going out in slippers and unplugging lights, timers are really nice.”
It may not have been the star of Bethlehem that led the Donaldsons to Neligh, but the family said the stars did align for them as everything worked out perfectly from employment to housing. That allowed them to move to Neligh, where Donaldson’s daughter, Jennifer Jacob, lives with her husband, Jared, and their four children. Once they decided to move to Neligh, they put an offer on a house and had theirs sold within a day and a half.
“I got a promotion, where I was able to work from home, and the stars kind of aligned,” he said. “My wife had been out here the past summer and said, ‘When I retire, I want to move to Neligh and be around the kids and be a grandma.’ Everything just came together.”
Donaldson is a senior manager for call centers in North America and Latin America. Although his home base is now Neligh, he still travels often. He’ll be home through Christmas, but after the first of the year, he will head back to Jamaica, where the company is building a new call center.
With 50,000 employees on six continents, Donaldson said he appreciates having the ability to work from home when not traveling.
“I tell people it’s nice to go home because we don’t even have a stoplight. We can sit out on the front porch, and Kyla is just two blocks from school. That’s why we moved here,” he said.
School is actually where Donaldson’s love for Christmas lights began. In the 1980s, he was living in northwest Kansas and working as head of maintenance and grounds at the Northern Valley school district. With help from his children, Jennifer and Jake, they competed with a friend to outdo each other’s lights every Christmas.
Later as an empty-nester, Donaldson took a year off “and got blasted” by the students for not having many lights. He hasn’t missed a Christmas since, and it’s still a family affair. This year Kyla and granddaughter Danny spent two days helping with the lights.
“This was more of a challenge this year,” he said. “With my OCD, the house we had in Grand Junction, I marked the lights where they go and had a plan where everything goes. There was no plan this year.”
But, just like in the movies, everything found its place, creating what Kyla called “a peppermint wonderland” that included candy canes lining the sidewalk — her favorite part of the display.
The Donaldsons are already planning to make next year’s lights even bigger, including a wooden sleigh in the front yard. Donaldson said he “doesn’t do inflatables” and will make the sleigh himself in his woodshop.
“We like building stuff, don’t we Papa,” Kyla said.
Even with the move to Nebraska, Donaldson said the traditions continue for his family, from hanging lights to watching their favorite movie on Christmas Eve — “Christmas Vacation.”
Donaldson said he learned from his father what the holiday is truly about. “Christmas is a time to be at home and to take that time to be together.”
“And enjoy,” Kyla added, bringing a smile to her grandfather’s face. “It’s not about presents. It’s about family.”