Sunday, November 24, 2013

Great Dickens Christmas Fair

     Every year, a healthy dose of Christmas magic and a whole lot of fabric transform Cow Palace in San Francisco into Victorian London, and I do mean transform. The more than 120,000 square foot space is turned into London neighborhoods, complete with shops, eateries, and entertainment.
     You can stay in the family friendly side of town, where you can join in a Victorian dance, play parlor games, watch Pinocchio on stage, ride the carousel, and visit Father Christmas. Or you can wander over to the dodgy side of town where you can mingle with the edgy characters of the London Docks and Mad Sal's Ale House. Enjoy the hearty singing and playing on the dockside stage or watch the ladies of the notorious Le CanCan Bijou.
     In your wanderings, you'll meet quite a few of the over 700 actors in authentic Victorian costumes going about their daily Victorian London lives, and you might be lucky enough to interact with some of Dickens' most beloved characters. This Christmas wonderland is, after all, the Great Dickens Christmas Fair. And trust me, you've never seen Christmas like this before.
     This year, I visited the fair on opening day (a Saturday), although the fair runs for five weekends from November 23 to December 22 from 10 am to 7 pm. If you are the penny pincher of your family, you'll definitely want to go to the fair sooner rather than later because the price of tickets increases as Christmas gets closer. And this fair ain't cheap. Adult tickets for the first three weekends cost $25 a piece, children (5-12) cost $12.00. If you enter the fair after 4 pm, the reduced "twilight" tickets will set you back $13 for an adult ticket and $8 for a child. You can also save a few bucks by printing the tickets from the website before the fair starts. Parking is $10 and fills up quickly.
     The high ticket price is definitely worth it because the whole event is an interactive experience (and everything looks authentic), and the prices inside the fair for food, drinks, and souvenirs are fairly cheap. When you enter the fair, you become a player in the story. Actors will talk to you, ask you to dance, and tell you stories. If you are a reserved, shy person, this fair might scare the Christmas spirit right out of you. But if you swallow those jitters and join the performance, you will have the time of your brief Victorian life.
     Being the reserved, shy person myself, I was a little overwhelmed by the energy of the first. On our way to the gate, my sister and I passed a group of chimney sweeps who gladly stopped to chat and pose for pictures. Their investment in their characters helped me overcome a little of my own stage fright and broke the ice. Once I entered the fair, I only had room for "WOW."
     As I wandered through the London neighborhoods (including the Grand Concourse, Grenadier's Gate, Pickwick Place, Bellringer's Row, Cratchit's Yard, Tinsley Green, Fish Street, Hollyberry Park, Golden Square, Nickelby Road, Mincing Lane, Petticoat, Lane, Maiden Lane, Fagin Alley, the London Docks, and Ale House Alley), I was amazed by the actors shopping, chatting, eating, drinking, and in some cases, mumbling. A drunkard (acting not actual) stumbled along in front of us. Another chimney sweep stopped for a photo and a few jokes with us. We saw Scrooge berating a group of gentlemen. We were haunted by Jacob Marley's ghost and impressed by his heavy chains. We saw the Christmas ghosts passing through the crowd like a dream. Again and again, I was surprised to be addressed by these actors and included in the drama.
     Of course, my shy side did intervene when we stopped at Fezziwig's Dance Party to watch the English country dancing, waltzing, and polka. Actors left the floor to ask us to waltz and polka, and I had to draw the line on participation, unwilling to try the dances with such a large crowd of onlookers. However, I greatly enjoyed seeing a young boy (around 7 years old) excitedly take the hand of a fair lady and rush onto the dance floor to be swung around in the polka.
     In the dodgy part of town, a handsome gentleman tried to sell us corsets and talk us into some daring pictures wearing them (we politely declined). Near the London Docks, a woman asked us to help her find her hat pin and to see her show later in the day. And everywhere we went, we were wished a "Happy Christmas." To take a break from the energy of the streets, we ducked into the Victoria & Albert Music Hall to watch Pinocchio. Seated next to us was a gentleman in top hat and coat.
     There are also a lot of food vendors at the fair with traditional English delights. If you visit one of the many pubs and ale houses, you can get a hot toddy, buttered rum, Irish coffee, scotch and soda, mimosa, spiced cider, and more. There's a Roasting Beef Inne where you can get a roast beef sandwich, crepes, or a steak and potatoes pasty. The Tippling Toad offers a larger, fancier dinner, including pumpkin pie. You can get banger sausages at Mr. Barker's Bangers and meat pies at Heritage Meat Pies. You can also visit Mr. Punch's Pasta, Acropolis Greek Food, and HMS Fish & Chips.
     If you want a snack rather than a meal, you can get roasted chestnuts, cinnamon almonds, and popcorn at little street vendors. For sweets or caffeine, you can visit MacClaren's Cookies & Milk, Mr. Brown's Fine Coffee and Teas, Cuthbert's Tea Shoppe, Confounding Confections, Bramosia Fine Chocolates & Candies, and 2 English Ladies.
     There's also plenty of shopping. You can buy clothes, jewelry, gifts, tankards, cups, violins, candles, pewter figurines, scarves, Christmas ornaments, soaps, perfume, books, ceramic and glass items, and much more.
     When it comes to entertainment, you can see performances of scenes from Dickens' novels, stomp to bands, watch dances, listen to carolers, see scientists and inventors discussing curiosities like electric-powered lanterns, visit Father Christmas, and more. People-watching is not only encouraged at this fair, it's expected. The actors, after all, didn't get all dressed up for nothing. Go to this fair with plenty of energy because you'll need every last drop. Visit the fair's website for more info:
     According to their website, the Great Dickens Christmas Fair has been a "Bay Area tradition since 1970." If you live in San Francisco, you may have had the pleasure of seeing actors in full Victorian outfit riding the BART to or from the fair, although everyone who attends is encouraged to dress up. San Francisco has a gift for getting in character. It can be Gotham City or London, and it celebrates the kid inside. This fair forces the Christmas spirit upon you, even if you're a Scrooge. If you visit the Bay Area during the holidays, this fair is definitely a miss-me-not.