I do not remember exactly how old I was when my brothers and I flipped the switch to turn on the Denver City and County Building holiday lights, but it is a memory my little kid brain froze in time and locked away for the rest of my life.
Memories like those are the real gifts each of us receive during the holiday season.
Growing up, our family tradition emphasized Christmas Eve over Christmas Day. My mother worked as a nurse for 50 years and frequently worked holidays to bring home extra pay, but she never missed Christmas Eve.
We would spend the early afternoon wrapping small gifts for children at the Denver Samaritan House, usually something like Hot Wheels that were both durable and easily transportable, have an early dinner of shrimp or dumplings and soup from Szechuan Chinese Restaurant in Lakewood, bundle up and head into Denver.
After dropping off the presents, we would drive by the City and County Building on our way to the Denver Botanic Gardens annual Blossoms of Light display. Back then we could simply walk up to the entry and buy tickets — these days you need to reserve a month in advance.
After we got in, my mom would break out prism glasses she had bought at the Wizard’s Chest (back while it was still in Cherry Creek). She collected an assortment over the years: regular starbursts, snowmen, snowflakes. Sometimes we would wear two at a time to compound the effect. She delighted in handing them out to us.
We would walk around under the lights oohing and aahing. Inevitably my mother would accost perfect strangers staring at us to try on the glasses and take a peek themselves. She is one of those people who will talk to anyone anywhere; my brothers and I used to call it “Stranger Talk Disease.” On Christmas Eve, though, it was a secret bit of surprise holiday cheer she loved to share with people.
Today the Botanic Gardens sells the prism glasses to entrants on their way in. I am sure that trend happened when my mother implored an employee to try on a pair of colored cardboard glasses.
Afterward we would head home to warm up with hot chocolate. Sometimes we watched movies or read books before heading to bed. We never opened any gifts — that was always a Christmas morning event.
I think it is rather telling that I do not have many vivid memories of Christmas mornings. Sure, I remember gathering around the tree and taking turns opening presents. I remember my brothers and I excitedly unpackaging and playing with the things we received. But none of that is as indelibly etched in my mind as the evenings before.
In the interim years, some of my traditions have changed. Christmas morning has become a bigger part of my holiday thanks to my wife and her family.
We will begin with stockings and feast on her breakfast casserole as my step-daughter — likely clad in a Grinch-onesie — settles into her spot by the couch. Presents will be followed by movies and lunch and an evening hanging out with our dogs and packing to leave for Mount Princeton Hot Springs the following day.
All of this will make me smile throughout. The season is about gratitude and I have so many memories, long past and still to be made, for which to be grateful.
This column will debut roughly as Santa is landing on rooftops across our part of the world. By that time, we will have made our trek to see the lights (for the first time at the Chatfield location) and fallen asleep. When we awake, the next stage will take place.
And I will have received the blessing of another set of memories with the people that matter the most.
Mario Nicolais is an attorney and columnist who writes on law enforcement, the legal system, health care and public policy. Follow him on Twitter: @MarioNicolaiEsq.
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