It’s always Christmas Eve at the Great Dickens Christmas Fair and Victorian Holiday Party. The fair has returned to the Cow Palace for its 39th season, offering an intense immersive experience and myriad diversions for all ages. Actors fill the streets of a staged London in period costumes and accents animating characters from Charles Dickens’ many works. The author himself holds court in his study at Tavistock House, reading from A Christmas Carol four times a day. While ambling about, one might see Santa transported in his sleigh to the Father Christmas Stage, or Oliver Twist being apprehended for pick-pocketing.
For those who want to be more active, there are knot-tying lessons, fairy house creation, ornament painting, Londonesque carnival games—boot the cat, flip chimney sweeps—Fezziwig’s Christmas party dancing, Sherlock Holmes mystery solving, fencing lessons. For adults there is a pub crawl, port and chocolate tasting, and Mad Sal’s Dockside Ale House. As this is an all day event, plan to enjoy traditional British fare—bangers and mash, meat pies, fish and chips, tea—or more worldly choices like Greek delicacies, crepes, and Jack and Beansteak’s vegetarian and gluten free options. (Adult are libations available in pubs and bars throughout the venue, too, so mead it up.)
And check out the artisans offer their wares: delicate glass ornaments, hand-stamped coins made on the spot, exquisite glass pens and scented ink, rum cakes, hand woven clothing, jewelry, ceramics, feathery adornments, unique headpieces.
After so many years, many actors, employees, volunteers, and guests see the Dickens Fair as a community. For many, their children, having grown up at the fair, are now working there. Numerous guests and their children were adorned in period costumes, proving the fair is a family tradition. One worker, Kimberly at Coin Strike of the West, explained how a group of entertainers and crafters founded the Rescu Foundation which offers a safety net for performers and vendors facing emergency medical needs.
The fair has been the subject of controversy—in 2021, Black cast members called out racist sexist behavior and a boycott was instituted. This month, however, the London Solidarity Network ended its boycott and released a joint statement with Great Dickens Christmas Fair producer Red Barn Productions, detailing plans for reconciliation, social justice and equity, diversity and inclusion, effective communication, ongoing collaboration. Hopefully, this joint effort yields a more inclusive and connected community.
The Tours of London offers literary, science, and children’s tours of the fair. Those one is lucky enough to have Mrs. Peerybingle as a tour guide learn much about the hidden aspects of the Dickens Fair. (Who doesn’t love the name of Fezziwig’s Dance Party, for example—yet most don’t recall the importance of Fezziwig in Ebenezer Scrooge’s psyche.) Mrs. Peerybingle offered nuanced interpretations of the classic tale on her tour as well as highlighting many hidden gems at the fair: weaving looms, hand sculpted porcelain curiosities, fairy doors, violin miniature scenes, and golden tea cups. The Printing Office produces The Bulletin which includes a four part serial story (the way many of Dickens’ own pieces were published). This year the story is “Varney the Vampyre or The Feast of Blood: A Love Story.”
Mrs. Peerybingle told a story about Dickens in a coffee shop he frequented. One day, he looked at the window from the inside and saw moor eeffoc; he shortly realized it was the coffee room lettering backwards. Obviously, he normally saw the lettering from the outside. This experience led to Dickens’ belief in the moor eeffoc effect: one’s perspective of even common scenes can change. He advocated slowing down to appreciate daily occurrences (the coffee room) in new ways (the moor eeffoc).
With this in mind, take in the four acres of the Dickens Fair slowly. Stop and talk with vendors who make their own wares, savor the attention to detail the carpenters used when creating a Victorian Christmas scene, sing along with a sea shanty, watch a puppet show and buy a puppet, talk with craftspeople using traditional techniques. Observe how vendors are preserving food and crafts traditions in our modern world. Appreciate modern practitioners of this ethos including local elixirs Sincere Cider, and Anderson Valley Brewing Company. Immerse yourself in the Great Dickens world. —Patty Riek. Photos by Jon Bauer
THE GREAT DICKENS CHRISTMAS FAIR AND VICTORIAN HOLIDAY PARTY Weekends through December 17 (plus the Friday after Thanksgiving), Cow Palace, Daly City. More info here.