What the Dickens

Pub date November 30, 2010


DAYS OF YORE For some, the holidays mean a frenzied stagger through the mall or a return to the cocoon of familial love. Others simply curl into a fetal position and try to block out consumerism’s bland canned tinkle of bells.

But for many in the Bay Area, the holidays mean donning some crinoline, a corset, or a snappy cravat and traipsing about a maze of freshly built village streets — engaging perfect strangers with a faux Victorian British accent. Such is life at the Great Dickens Christmas Fair, a nine-day event celebrating its 32nd year of “‘Appy Christmas, guv’nuh!”

In a foul, holiday-incurred blackness of a hangover, I was learning about the intricacies of epochal mass delusion in the Dickens family parlor — a party of cucumber sandwiches and polite conversation in a cozy corner of the Cow Palace, where the fair is set. Kevin Patterson, a beaming dandy of a man, greeted me with a blast of British cheer, although we quickly settled back into Californian when my somewhat reduced energy level and clumsy manhandling of a porcelain teacup became apparent.

Patterson’s parents started the fair, inspired by the sartorial glee of the Renaissance Pleasure Faire. “It was a natural shift from Queen Elizabeth and Shakespeare to Queen Victoria and Charles Dickens,” he tells me. Three generations of his family are now involved in its production, including his children and wife, Leslie. He says a fair of this kind exists nowhere else, not even in merry olde England.

I’m trying to figure out what makes a person want to be a part of such an involved pantomime. The three acres of Dickensian playground are host to more than 800 performers. There are the can-can girls flashing their bloomers at Mad Sal’s dockside alehouse, Father Christmas, homeless drunks, even the queen herself, who promenades past us to the loud delight of the waitstaff inside the family parlor.

The cast also includes a shriveled Scrooge (who is flown over from England specifically to play the role), dogs, and small children. Here and there dart 10-year-old boys delivering telegrams. Everyone is speaking in some approximation of Victorian dialect, and most seem reluctant to break through their shamming — we run into a belligerent William Sykes, apparently prior to being deported to Australia on charges of manslaughter, in one of the fair’s five (!) bars at one point and are nearly put off our spiced mead by his growlings.

It’s all about the season, Patterson explains. He tells me that the Victorian era, the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution, was when many of the traditions we celebrate today came about. “It was a simpler time.”

Perhaps, but not if you base your impressions of, say, the costume guidelines for the hundreds of cheery participants (easily seen on the fair’s website), or the dialect instructions, or the weekly e-mail missives that gently remind players that cell phones were not a feature of 1800s England and are not to be brandished, even if it is to take a photo of the live corset models or — gasp! — Dickens himself. “Authenticity is important. Most people in our cast care so much about doing it right,” says Patterson.

The rules of conduct are so expansive that classes are offered at a nearby high school in the weeks leading up to the fair for those hoping to brush up on their speech, improvisation skills (all the better to create the “environmental theater” effect Patterson IS looking for) as well as how to make your own clothing. Most people in those days had to, you know.

But the casual visitor to the Great Dickens Christmas Fair need not adhere to all these strictures, though I did feel très gauche in my jeans and hooded sweatshirt. We spent most of our time in the “unsavory” parts of town where custom dictates glottal stops for words with double t’s, and “anyfink” instead of “anything.” You find the filthiest drunks thereabouts, not to mention the boozy pub songs of Mad Sal’s, and a boudoir photography booth to show off your new spendy corsetry from Hayes Valley’s Dark Garden.

Not to mention an absinthe bar (pouring some local brews), hair-braiding salons, an explorer’s club, steampunk wonder shows, tarot readers, meat pies, crafts galore — and the happenstance magic of coming across a bunch of Dickensians spontaneously acting out some scene of yore-ness, not because they’re being watched by a gawking family but because they really, really like playing out life in Victorian England.

In one such scene, two women were strumming mandolins on the floor, their tiny ankle boots peeking out from voluminous skirts. Around them a perfectly period audience looked on from chairs set against the walls. Even in my slightly dehydrated, deflated state, I could enjoy their dedication to this homey weirdness.

“It’s our family holiday. We look forward to celebrating it every year,” twinkles Patterson, as I bid adieu to the posh environs of the family parlor. Charles Dickens himself sees me out onto the fake street outside, thanking me for attending his fair.


Sat/4–Sun/5, Dec.11–12, Dec.18–19;

11 a.m.–7 p.m., $12–$25

Cow Palace

2600 Geneva, SF