For 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.
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 Wall Howard.
"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 up.
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.
"Well, 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?
We 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."
Just 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 year.
INFO: Fresno's Christmas Tree Lane (Dec 1-26, Walk Nights on Dec 1 and 11; free; Shields Ave. at Van Ness Blvd.; 559/221-6969)