An African immigrant experiences his first American Christmas
in Fresno-- and catches the holiday spirit
December 21, 2006
Vicelin D'Souza never knows where he's going to see Santa
Riding in a car near California State University, Fresno,
late one afternoon this week, D'Souza spots the merry old
elf crossing Shaw Avenue. Drivers honk. Santa waves. D'Souza
"I like the way people get into the Christmas spirit
here," says D'Souza, who moved from Kenya to Clovis
last month -- just in time to celebrate his first American
Christmas. He watches Santa toddle down the sidewalk.
"In Kenya, you wouldn't find him walking on a road
like that," D'Souza says.
Watching the mad dash toward the holiday through his eyes
is enough to make one appreciate many of the conveniences
we often take for granted. Things like streets without potholes,
synchronized traffic signals and shopping center parking
lots (crowded though they may be) have him shaking his head
There are jaw-dropping moments, but it's not as overwhelming
for D'Souza as you might imagine.
Kenya is about twice the size of Nevada. But he lived in
Nairobi, a city about 21/2 times the size of Fresno with
about five times as many people.
Nairobi traffic snarls make walking an appealing alternative.
Pedestrians crowd the city during the day. So while Fresno
seems vast, D'Souza doesn't find it particularly big or bustling.
"It's slower here," D'Souza says. "Everybody
drives. No one walks."
It's also chillier. The equator passes through Kenya, which
has but two seasons: summer and rainy. He's never seen snow.
Bundled up in a lightweight red jacket, black sweatpants
and white sneakers, he's still adjusting to the Valley's
comparatively frigid winter temperatures.
It's not just the weather he finds totally cool, however.
A trip down Fresno's Christmas Tree Lane left him awestruck.
"It was absolutely fantastic," D'Souza says. "I
had never seen a whole lane being decorated with such beautiful
decorations for Christmas -- ever. This was something out
of this world."
says Kenyan Christians focus their decorating indoors.
They put up Christmas trees and spend hours, if not days,
creating elaborate nativity scenes. Families tour nearby
churches to check out their "cribs," as they
might put a small star made from paper and bamboo outside.
Anything more than that would be at risk for "pole fishing," or
"In Nairobi, they would pinch stuff and sell it for
a few bucks," he says. "If there was a reindeer,
they would just pick it up and go."
A few years ago, a thief ran off with the baby Jesus lying
in a life-size nativity scene at a Nairobi mall. Neither
he nor Santa have been back since.
So to see any outdoor display is a treat.
"It's difficult to imagine that people take so much
time to put it up," he says. "That particular street,
it looks like Christmas is there for a month, not just a
day. ... It looks Christmasy from the beginning of the road
right through the end."
The Nairobi Christmas season starts only a few days before
the holiday. A day or two later, stores redecorate for New
Year's Day. Because the school year starts in January, D'Souza
says, the holidays are quickly forgotten, and decorations
disappear altogether before the year is more than a few days
Much of the culture shock he's experiencing has little to
do with the holidays -- and it's not so much shock as euphoria.
Nairobi has malls and shops, but not as many choices. So
far, the United States is living up to its reputation as
the land of plenty. Gazing upon the 25-foot Christmas tree
near the Shops at River Park, D'Souza is impressed not by
its size, but by the fact that it's only one of many you
can find around the city.
It reminds him of the Mayor's Tree in Nairobi, lit every
"There is only one such tree," he says. "It's
a living tree they planted around 1978, 1980. It stays. They're
pretty conservative about cutting down real trees over on
Americans, Kenyans don't go overboard while shopping for
gifts. One reason, D'Souza says, is that personal credit
is virtually nonexistent: "Usually, you must pay once
and for all."
He says families are larger, many with a half-dozen children
or more. Since school fees are due when classes resume shortly
after the holidays, people budget accordingly.
Watching his wife, Cherida, buy clothes for friends and
family came as a shock.
"I would say to her: 'How do you know what size they
are? How do you know it'll fit?' " he says. "She
said you can take it back. You can't return clothing in Nairobi.
That was something I couldn't believe."
Shopping for gifts in Kenya takes a back seat to Christmas
as a social occasion.
"People there would be happy to have a meal on the
table," D'Souza says. "Kids would like whatever
is the latest toy. But adults would go for dinner out. That's
how they would celebrate. They would wear black tie, go to
a dinner dance and go to a club and still be there until
the early morning."
His family's tradition was to bake sweets and take them
around to neighbors. Families gather, but there isn't as
much long-distance travel, he says.
That might be in part because Kenyan roads are far rougher
than American streets and highways. A road trip to Utah shortly
after D'Souza arrived Nov. 16 left him impressed.
"Everything is so smooth," he says. "Not
a single pothole. There were no leaves, even though they
were falling all over the place."
He figures getting used to four seasons will take some time.
Cherida, who moved to the United States 17 years ago, vividly
remembers her first American Christmas.
"I was cold, lonely and homesick," she says. "It
was odd to have Christmas on a foggy day."
still thinks of herself as Kenyan first. But when she returned
to her homeland last December to marry Vicelin, "it
was hot. I couldn't believe it was Christmas."
Her husband's easygoing temperament will help him adjust
to life in the United States, she says. But it's all so new
that all he can do is try to take it all in.
nods in agreement: "It hasn't hit yet."
Cherida has promised to take him back to Christmas Tree
Lane before it closes Monday. He wants to take pictures to
send back home.
"I was dancing around to the Christmas carols I could
hear along the street," he says. "Everyone was
laughing. ... It really does bring the spirit of Christmas,
to me especially."