About six weeks ago I found out about the Great Dickens Christmas Fair happening in San Francisco over the Holidays, and I immediately went on line and bought a ticket. There was no way I was going to miss something like this!
I asked my friend Valerie if she wanted to go with me, but she had nightmarish memories of an absurdly crowded event and she declined. I was not discouraged, I intended to experience it for myself.
Last Saturday the Fair opened for its first weekend, and I was there at opening time – which is 10:00 am. I had a blast!
I do not know if it was because it was the first day, and before Thanksgiving, the fair was busy, but not impossibly crowded as Valerie had suggested.
As I walked from the parking lot toward the entrance I saw people in Victorian costume also heading that way. By the entrance, a newspaper boy was shouting out about the fair’s newspaper, and handed me a copy. Not only was he dressed in Victorian style, but was shouting in Cockney!
A very elegant gentleman in a long coat and top hat stood nearby showing us the way in. The entrance acted like a time machine, because once on the other side, I found I had stepped back one hundred and sixty years, give or take a decade, going from daytime San Francisco in 2015 to night time London on, say, Christmas Eve 1859.
Everything, down to the tiniest detail, was in Victorian style, and all the volunteers and vendors were in full Victorian costume of one style or another. A lot of the visitors also were in costume, so I would say that about 85% of all people present were in beautifully done and quite accurate Victorian/Dickensian clothing. It was a great big Victorian Christmas Eve party dotted with characters from Charles Dickens’ stories.
But things did not become truly surreal until I started interacting with them: except one or two newbies, everyone spoke with an English accent, mostly with a London-Cockney one, and had the conversation and mannerism to go along with that, without ever faltering.
I was a time traveler. Or they were. Bringing out my iPhone (6s) to start taking photographs felt weird. Also, every time I did that, which, as you can see from this blog post, was a lot, people would stop and pose for me, then continue on with whatever they were doing. I kept expecting them to ask me what the magic box was, calling it miracle machine.
It was as close as I have ever come to an elaborate film set, where all the actors and extras are playing their parts in continuous mode without the director ever saying “Cut!”
Sidebar for my fellow photo geeks – Once I had gotten an idea of the type of even this would be, large and with lots of people, in low lighting and with spot lights (so lots of contrast), I decided that I would travel light and only take my new iPhone 6s, leaving my professional (and heavy) gear at home. I have to admit I missed my big baby in a few instances where a nice flash would have made a difference – like in the dark alley of the London Docks. Other than that, I am quite happy with the behavior and yield of the iPhone 6s, which I find quite suited to this type of event. The low lighting was challenging at times, and the iPhone was “tired” after a while, with the focus not responding within the App I was using, which was the otherwise excellent ProCamera. All images were edited in Photoshop on the home computer. – Sidebar closed –
The intention had been to look at the map inside the paper to figure out where I was and where I was going, but all I could do was stare wide eyed at everything and take pics. I was in sensory overload, and happy to be, so I decided to just follow my nose.
Below is the map, just to give you an idea, and on the fair’s website you can download a bigger one where you can see the details better.
Besides wonderful characters and beautiful decorations, the fair is rich in performances, both on various stages set about the place, and spontaneous ones happening right beside you as you walk along. It is also rich in wonderful shops and food vendors, all strictly in Victorian style.
I had meant to return on my way out and pick up one of these lovely faeries, and then forgot. There were other things that I had meant to purchase and forgot, because by the time I was done walking around, seeing and photographing everything – forgetting to eat or drink anything in the meanwhile – I was exhausted. Sooo… Yesterday I bought another ticket and plan to go once more: no photos this time, just fun! Well, maybe a few photos.
Because the whole point of me giving this post priority and editing almost two hundred images non-stop for two days, was to publish this while the Fair is still going on. This way, if you are in the area, you will have a chance to experience it.
The first weekend is now done, but the Dickens Christmas Fair is happening for four more weekends:
Thanksgiving Weekend – Fri, Sat & Sun 27-28-29 November; then December 5 & 6, 12 & 13, and 19 & 20, all from 10:00 am to 7:00 pm, at the Cow Palace on Geneva Avenue in Daly City.
It was still relatively early in the “day”, but as I walked past the Tarot Reader there was already a line of people waiting for their turn.
Another popular place was the Dark Garden Corset Makers shop, and with good reason. The shop windows even had live models instead of mannequins. Entering the shop was like entering a scene from the TV series The Paradise. I did not purchase any corsets or clothes, but I intend to be costumed up for next year’s event.
Organized by Red Barn Productions and the Patterson Family – who created and directed the popular Renaissance Fair at Black Point in Marin for twenty-five years – The Great Dickens Christmas Fair has been a treasured Bay Area tradition for thirty-five years.
“To recreate old London town, we transform over three acres of vintage exhibition halls into lamplit lanes, pubs and theaters, dance floors and music halls, tearooms and shops. Hundreds of costumed characters, from genteel to boisterous, bring the town to life and interact with patrons.”
It truly is a one-of-a-kind event. At least, I have never been to one like it before, though I had attended the famous Renaissance Fair the very first time I ever came to the United States as an exchange student when I was one month short of eighteen. The experience is embedded in my mind forever. And now so is this one!
Doesn’t the man in the image top right make you think of Doc Brown from Back to the Future?
The Fiddles N’ Such music shop in the images above and below was one of my favorites. The other one was the book shop, which you will see later. Stepping inside these shops was truly like stepping into their Victorian equivalent. It was a chicken skin experience.
The lady in the image below was wearing quite an outfit, and that Mad Hatter’s hat with all those long ribbons was quite stunning. I asked her to pose for me, and she was joined by two other friendly Londoners.
And then…. lo and behold!! Look what I found! A colleague of Ollivander, the wand maker. The master crafter of Whirlwood Magic Wands turns some really beautiful wands in different styles, and gives each its own name. There is even a collection from Harry Potter: the Elder Wand, which in the end belonged to Harry, Harry’s original wand, Hermione’s wand, Ron’s wand, Fleur Delacour’s wand, Lucius Malfoy’s wand and even Voldemort’s wand.
Then there were even a series of hollow wands, that is, you could unscrew the handle and they would have a hollow space inside where you could insert a set of powerful treasures that come with each wand.
Did I get a wand? What do you think?
Overstreet’s was another popular clothing store. Isn’t the dress in the image above just lovely? The shop even had a sitting area where husbands and their pets could wait for the ladies.
The masques were quite stunning, too, reminiscent of Venetian carnival masques, but with an dark intensity.
The ladies and gentleman below were part of a group that was listening to King Edward VII talk about military strategy. I decided to video a little of that, with the intention of including such video here. Alas, I am a bit of a newbie with video, and though I have learned to hold the phone still and to apply my camera framing skills, I am still not well versed in the post op logistics, and the quality of my nice little videos tends to get lost in translation. So I will be posting the ones from the Fair on my Facebook page directly from the iPhone, one at a time, as I do not like to overwhelm people’s streams. They are short but will give you a nice feel for the fair. Hopefully, Facebook won’t butcher them too much.
Of course, no London town would be complete without a Holzer and Combe Haberdashery, where gentleman’s accessories could be found.
One of these hats was what I wanted to get, either a top hat or a newspaper boy hat, or possibly one of each. I will be looking into them on my next visit. Really, you can’t go around taking photos, even with an iPhone, while carrying a bunch of stuff.
Continuing with gentleman’s apparel, I oohed and aahed all over the beautiful shop of Mr. Alan Jeffries Fine Gentlemen’s Apparel. These were not just costumes, these were seriously fine quality clothes. I was truly impressed by the quality of the workmanship, the fabrics, the styles… everything.
Dear Gentlemen, if you are in need of a beautiful new outfit, look no further!
Is the above jacket exquisite or what?
Above is another one of my favorite stops at the fair, and I almost had my hair braided. On my to-do list for next time. The “ladies’ maids” were doing a wonderful work. Don’t you just love that little girl with the gold dress and sneakers? If you look at some of the images closely you will see other little incongruities here and there, little reminders that it was not the 1800’s after all.
The lady above left featured an incongruity that was not exactly visible: I had to wait to take a photo till she stopped chewing her gum. It is amazing how many of these details I started to notice as I dropped more and more into the fictional 1800 time warp.
And the hair combs below made me think of the ones used by Rose DeWitt Bukater in Titanic.
At Strawbenders Ltd I saw some really beautiful hats and bonnets of excellent quality. I was going to provide their website for you, but when I click on the link I get a page telling me that the domain name is for sale.
I really wish my Mom had been with me. She would have loved all of this, especially the dresses. Then we would have stopped for a cuppa. I need to talk her into coming over next year’s edition of the fair.
The tea room was filled with a blend of, let’s call them civilians, and costumed characters. The costumed ones never, ever stepped out of character, even while taking a break for tea.
Above left is possibly the most elegant gentleman in the whole fair!
These adorable dresses by Nana’s Nursery made me wish my niece was still a little girl… or that she weren’t such a tomboy. Hum… my friend Laura has absolutely adorable and girly 3-year-old twin girls… What do you think, Laura?
No Dicken’s Fair would be complete without Scrooge and the Spirit of Christmas present.
Fish and Chips were, are and will be perennially popular. The long line proves it!
This lovely little cake shop was selling London’s Finest Cakes & Puddings. Here I was asked about the magic box I was holding. I was then offered a taste of their Christmas pudding, one of the many goodies I forgot to go back and purchase, and is now on my to-do list for my next visit. Their cakes are made by Artisan Candies in San Jose, Ca.
One of the highlights of my visit to the fair was Charles Dickens’ home. He was not present at the time, but his butler made me very welcome, and informed me that Mr. Dickens would hold a reading of A Christmas Carol at four that afternoon. Then two gentlemen stopped by and the trio was kind enough to pose for a photograph. It was one of those moments after which I shook my head in an attempt to see if it would all disappear in front of my eyes. It didn’t.
Don’t they look dashing? I must say that men do look nice dressed like this. Even the beards – which I do not like – I must grudgingly admit fit the style. For women things were a bit more complicated in those times, with all the corsets, petticoats and all. When I visited the restroom, two ladies in full Victorian costume walked out of two of those tiny stalls, and I shuddered at the idea. Even with the conveniences of modern times, using the restroom with all that paraphernalia on your body cannot be fun.
Here we finally come to my absolute favorite place in the whole fair: the book shop. My 2015 self would call this an antique book store, but in 1859 (I am sticking to 1859) it would not have been antique at all, well, except for a few books published in, say, Edward De Vere/Shakespeare time. Those would have been antiques even in the 19th century.
The proprietor of the book shop, such Gerald Webb of Fitz-Gerald Manor Shop, was such a perfect character that he truly seemed a time traveler, one who had learned how to use an iPhone to accept credit cards with the Square App accessory.
Besides antique books, the shop also sells other treasures, like the wonderful tea cups and pots you see in these images. These I could not resist, and bought two. They are both visible in the image above. Can you guess which ones I purchased? Now I see a third one I may just have to get next time.
FYI, the bookstore, which specializes in 19th century authors with emphasis, of course, on Charles Dickens, books about the 19th century, and fine bindings, is in physical existence only during the Dickens Christmas Fair. However, if you are from out of town and are interested, I did ask Mr. Webb for a card, and he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or 415-533-7435. It seems he is of this century after all. Or is he?
After walking out of the book store, I was drawn like a moth to the flame to a little vending stall called Rosies Posies selling beautifully crafted crowns, floral garlands, headbands and other lovely adornments. The image below does not do them justice because of the harsh light of the spot, but they were truly beautiful. They are handcrafted by Marin County artist Rosie Echelmeier. Other than through her Etsy shop, the Dickens Christmas Fair is the only place where she sells her garlands. She had a beautiful assortment, in various color schemes, but I had to get a Christmas crown. I put it on right there and then and only took it off just before bed time. You can see it in an image further down, which I took this morning at home.
Even though the whole Fair is festively Christmas, this was the only shop that sold actual Christmas decorations, all rigorously Victorian style. It was my last stop before finally grabbing a lemonade to go and heading for my car.
By this point I was really tired and knew it was time to leave, yet I resisted letting go of this space-time, and of the Victorian atmosphere. Late 19th century London was both a terrible and fascinating place, and the intense feelings of my visit at the bookstore made me wonder if I had had a life there. If it was a good one I must have been a man, as women’s lives were still so limited and so repressed, despite one of them being Queen.
Here I was, immersed in the late 19th century, and yearning to stay longer, as my 2015 self, of course, as I would not want to give that independence and freedom up.
Once home, I googled around a bit, and just by inserting Dickens Christmas Fair, several links to various events and organizations popped up. I was surprised by how popular these things are. And by ‘things’ I mean the events, but also the desire to dress up in a lifestyle of another era, an idea that I find very well explored in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, in which each era feels the previous one was preferable.
A similar fascination to the one for the Victorian period is experienced with the 1920s and the Charleston/Flapper era, a trend which was given strength by Downton Abbey, but which I feel started long before that. Around the Bay Area alone there are several extremely popular Art Deco events, the main one being Gatsby’s Summer Afternoon, which takes place in Oakland in the middle of September. The participants do not only dress in vintage clothing of the era, but also take the time to learn the mannerism and dance style of the time.
For the reasons of freedom and independence given earlier, I would not wish to return to those times as were, but maybe integrating a little of the grace and style – so basically the good aspects – of those time periods with that of our current one could be interesting and fun, even if just for a party.
What do you think?