Fresno, California, the spirit of Christmas triumphs
a long time, I saw the spirit of Christmas as a plump,
white-bearded, Santa-ish figure — like Jack Black
if you glued cotton to his chin. But now I know who the
spirit of Christmas truly is. He is a 49-year-old engineer
named Dean Alexander.
lives in Fresno's Old Fig Garden neighborhood, on a stretch
of Van Ness Boulevard that he calls "the
oldest Christmas Tree Lane in the world." For 85 years,
residents have been decorating 2 miles of Van Ness for the
holidays. Today these decorations include 60,000 feet of
lights twinkling from the street's 300 deodar cedars and
lawn displays that can cost thousands of dollars.
"The real work starts in October," Lauri Leone
Stine, a Christmas Tree Lane veteran, tells me when I arrive
to take in Alexander's display and the rest of the show.
In October, volunteers start stringing the lights in the
trees. By Thanksgiving, homeowners are arranging painted
plywood reindeer (and much else) across their lawns. "You
can put up pretty much anything you want as long as you're
not selling something," says another organizer, Phoebe
"But I wish people wouldn't put up Captain Underpants," another
neighbor chimes in.
It's dusk now, and there's no time to debate the good Captain.
Leone Stine and her crew are dashing to circuit boxes and
flicking switches so that, block by block, Van Ness lights
If you grew up in the suburban West, you've probably seen
other Christmas Tree Lanes. They don't prepare you for Fresno's.
It happens that I'm visiting on one of the lane's pedestrian-only
Walk Nights. As I shuffle with the crowd, which tonight numbers
about 10,000, I get the strange feeling we're all crossing
some border into Christmas, a foreign land with its own language
and customs and visa requirements.
Glowing on the well-tended lawns are all the ambassadors
of Yuletide joy you've ever encountered: angels and elves,
Santas and Grinches, Snoopy and Linus, and, yes, Captain
Underpants. Some bob in time to recorded carols; some just
shine beneath spotlights.
of course if you didn't like it, you wouldn't live here," one
resident says when I ask what would happen if you lived here
and didn't want to put up a display. On we walk, past string
quartets playing Bach, strolling carolers, and so many illuminated
displays, they blend together like one of those hectic childhood
dreams you had on Christmas Eve, where Snoopy is caroling
with King Wenceslas. Then the crowd slows down, as we were
warned it would, because we're nearing Dean Alexander's house.
"We've been doing this for 16 years," he tells
me. "Every year we add to it. It's ever evolving.''
It's difficult, in the confines of a magazine page, to list
all the components of Alexander's Christmas display. I see
chugging trains, Mickey Mouse, clock towers, and colored
laser beams illuminating a blizzard of artificial snow.
"My family thinks I'm a fanatic," Alexander
says. I think, Your family might be onto something. But
I also think, If you can't be fanatical about Christmas,
what can you be fanatical about?
stand admiring the falling fake snow and flashing lasers.
Alexander says he doesn't mind when the lane shuts down
December 26. "It's a demanding job."
then, an older woman steps onto his lawn. She looks as
if she wants to complain — about the crowds, the
lights, the energy use. She wants to know who is responsible
for this display. Alexander says, "I am."
"God bless you," says
the woman. The spirit of Christmas has triumphed for another