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Cool Yule

An African immigrant experiences his first American Christmas in Fresno-- and catches the holiday spirit

Fresno Bee
December 21, 2006

Vicelin D'Souza never knows where he's going to see Santa Claus next.

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 smiles.

"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 in wonder.

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."

He 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 call them.

They might put a small star made from paper and bamboo outside. Anything more than that would be at risk for "pole fishing," or theft.

"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 old.

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 Christmas Eve.

"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 that side."

Unlike 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."

She 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.

He 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."




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