Dec. 20, 2013 at 8:02 AM ET
Ah, London at Christmas time: The scent of fresh-baked scones, the joyful voices of carolers and the spirit of Charles Dickens himself hanging in the air as you stroll the cobbled streets…
Wait, what’s that? You say the airlines’ Scrooge-like ways have you feeling about as flush as Bob Cratchit? Fear not and hie thee instead to San Francisco, where the Great Dickens Christmas Fair offers up the nearest thing to Victorian London this side of the Atlantic Ocean.
Now in its 35th year, the event is part crafts fair, part living theater and something of a Christmas miracle that turns the cavernous Cow Palace in Daly City into a 120,000-square-foot recreation of London circa 1840. Over the course of five weekends (Nov. 23–Dec. 22), upwards of 50,000 people will browse Victorian- and Christmas-themed shops, enjoy musical and theatrical productions of the era and mingle with more than 800 costumed characters.
“It’s much more than a festival or crafts fair,” said Kevin Patterson, executive director of Red Barn Productions, which produces the fair. “It’s also one of the world’s largest environmental theater productions.”
That environment is a clever conglomeration of constructed “streets” and “alleyways” with names like Pickwick Place and Petticoat Lane. Shops staffed by vendors in period attire sell everything from antique books to velvet gowns while more than a dozen restaurants and bars serve up a variety of traditional dishes and adult beverages.
But, ultimately, it’s the actors in period attire that bring the “streets” to life. Bolstered by the ranks of local theater groups, the cast of characters range from Victorian archetypes — chimney sweeps, bobbies and dancehall girls — to A-listers like Scrooge, Tiny Tim and David Copperfield.
“It’s totally immersive; it all happens right in front of you,” said Laura Gregory, a Los Angeles-based actor and theater teacher who comes up every weekend to play the eponymous owner of Mad Sal’s Dockside Alehouse.
“You’ll never see anyone drop character; you’ll never see them pull out a cell phone to see what time it is. For however long you’re there, you’re in Victorian London.”
And, by extension, a setting straight out of a Dickens book, which isn’t surprising considering the writer, the era and many of the traditions that define the holiday season today remain inextricably linked.
The Christmas card, for example, was a Victorian creation, while the Christmas tree, a German tradition, only became commonplace in England (and beyond) after Queen Victoria married her German cousin, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha in 1840.
“The association between Dickens and Christmas is a powerful one because he wrote about it so many times,” said John Jordan, director of the Dickens Project, a collaborative research effort at the University of California Santa Cruz.
“Some people erroneously say he’s the man who invented Christmas, but what he really did was move the conception of it from a religious ritual into a domestic celebration,” said Jordan. “It’s a kind of secularization, yet it retains some of the spiritual dimension.”
At the same time, says Jordan, the fair taps into an ongoing interest in historical re-enactment in general and the Victorian era in particular. From ‘60s hippies in their thrift-store velvet to today’s steampunk couture, Victorian clothing never seems to go out of style, which may explain why a goodly portion of fair attendees also show up in period regalia.
“Holidays are intrinsically nostalgic, and the Victorian period embodies the quintessential old-fashioned Christmas,” said Patterson. “Top hats and bonnets, ball gowns and coat and tails — that’s the stuff of a fancy holiday party.”
Rob Lovitt is a longtime travel writer who still believes the journey is as important as the destination. Follow him on Twitter.