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Nicolais: Don’t be upset if I wish you a Merry Christmas

It might not be politically correct, but there is a reason it means a lot to me

Every year I am bound to wish someone a Merry Christmas and receive a chilly glare in return. The kind of glare that comes from a place of deep judgment and snickering disdain.

While I’ve been known to make cutting comments to evoke just such a response for my own amusement — as my wife would certainly attest — that’s never been the goal of my annual December greeting.

Mario Nicolais

Sometimes I stick with the more politically correct “Happy Holidays,” but more often than not, the frequently maligned “Merry Christmas” comes out before I can catch myself.

Even so, I’m never particularly sorry.

I love Christmas. I love the lights and the wreaths and the carols and the classic movies. I love Hallmark specials, gift shopping and great crowds packed into malls. Most of all, I love Christmas traditions.

To me, Merry Christmas is a shorthand for something more than generalized wishes; it’s all the best things about my favorite time of year wrapped into a two-phrase.

When I was very young, my mother began several traditions with my two brothers and me. On Christmas Eve, we spent the afternoon wrapping small toys like Matchbox cars or My Little Pony figures to drop off at Denver’s Samaritan House.

No matter how poor we might be — and there were years when our living room furniture consisted of a beanbag and cinder blocks — my mother always reminded us there were kids with even less.

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They didn’t have a home, much less a living room. But as she told us, every child should get to open a present of their own on Christmas morning. She knew we would get more from the grace of giving than anything we found under the tree.

After wrapping 50-100 presents and eating dinner, we headed downtown to play three little Santas. Once we made our delivery, our tradition dictated that we drove by the Denver City and County Building to see it engulfed in lights.

If we were lucky, and early, we got to see them turned on. One year, when we were really lucky and really early, a city worker invited us to push the master button that brought the whole display to life. My awe and wonder in the moment immediately after is still the best Christmas gift I’ve ever gotten.

Every year our little Christmas procession continued to the Botanic Gardens. No matter how cold, we walked the whole path of wrapped trees and blinking pergolas. Pretty by themselves, the lights took on a magical aspect when we wore the diffraction glasses my mom bought at the Wizard’s Chest.

As our band tromped through the gardens in these strange eye covers, my mother couldn’t help but share with anyone she saw casting bewildered glances in our direction. Perfect strangers began “ooooing” and “aaaahing” as mere lights transformed into snowflakes, snowmen and Christmas stars.

Today the Botanic Gardens sells similar glasses as you walk through the gates, and I like to think they are only sharing the magic we brought with us decades before.

On the way home, we would find a nativity scene in a nearby church for our final stop. In contrast to the bustling shelter and the crowds at the gardens, the gentle silence of the nativity felt like a blanket that wrapped us in a warm peace.

While I didn’t grow up in the church and didn’t become particularly religious until later in life, I never failed to leave unaffected by a profound sense of joy.

So if I wish you a Merry Christmas, it isn’t a slight or a political statement or a cultural illiteracy. It’s my wish that you experience the same grace in giving, awe and wonder in the world around you, the magic of the season, and a real peace and joy that may be more elusive during the rest of the year.

And if you wish me “Happy Holidays,” or a “Happy Hannukah,” or “Happy Kwanzaa,” I’ll know you mean the same.

Mario Nicolais is an attorney and columnist who writes on law enforcement, the legal system, healthcare and public policy. Follow him on Twitter: @MarioNicolaiEsq