A downtown stroll at Christmas can lead to more than one pleasant surprise.

Last night, the businesses of downtown Colorado Springs stayed open late for the “Tejon Street Holiday Stroll.” Normally, they’d close at 6, surrendering the Springs’ fragile downtown atmosphere to the mostly sketchy nightclubs and the beggars. But for one night, I was reminded of the beauty of walkable streets, fine arts and food, neighbors, and Christmastide.

My wife and I had just purchased our Christmas tree. We had heard about this “holiday stroll” from a local nonprofit’s weekly arts and culture e-mail (“COPPeR” is an arts godsend, by the way). It sounded like a lot of the businesses were going to make festive fun for the evening. I’d heard something about free food.

As we parked and walked to Tejon Street (the main downtown road) and saw nothing unusual except lights in the trees, I confess I made a cynical remark—that it was a classic Colorado Springs event; the only way to know it was going on was to already know it was going on.

Then we noticed the first participating store, and I was utterly silenced henceforth. It was a wine shop, with an old-fashioned chalkboard sign out informing us there was a wine tasting inside. We tried a chardonnay, a merlot, and a deliciously smooth French blend, as soft Christmas music played in the background (the good stuff, not Brenda Lee). We were in no hurry to move on; we explored the store, chatted with the staff a little, and felt as though we could go home happy.

But we didn’t need to, not yet. Next we found a new store we didn’t know existed; it was an art store, where you could come in some evening and learn from a top-notch local artist how he’d done a particular painting—and then paint it yourself. (Oh, and they gave you wine as well.) It was bright and cheery, covered in paint splatter, easels, and smiling faces. Again, we lingered. I was struck by how the people there seemed to know so many other people in the area—they told us of other galleries and restaurants we should visit, and other people we should meet. It was a kind of Third Place that was new to me, and I was glad to have found it (my wife more so, as she can actually paint).

We next encountered a small art gallery, which fed us delicious cranberry-baked Brie and hot mulled wine while we chatted it up with the artists who had done the paintings on the walls. Then we passed the Pikes Peak Ringers, a handbell ensemble playing Christmas carols. We went on and on, entering savory spice shops and interior furnishings stores filled with red and green; trying more drinks, delicacies, and dark chocolate fondue-covered strawberries (the last provided by the Melting Pot, the only chain we encountered the entire evening—I wasn’t complaining, of course).

I felt almost dazzled by the cozy warmth of the atmosphere, even in the cold winter air. I had just encountered one of the charming, small-town-style December moments that are so rare these days—filled not with the purposefulness of driving places, but the spontaneity of strolling. Many people were dressed in their holiday best, and I was walking downtown with the prettiest woman alive on my arm (she was decked out in red and outshone my subdued shades most properly).

Thank you to the people downtown for Christmas beauty. And mulled wine.

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