What the Hell Is The Dickens Fair, the Christmas Tradition in Daly City?

I did not grow up celebrating Christmas; like many other Jews, my family spent the holiday eating Chinese food, watching movies, and looking quizzically at our friends who went to midnight mass. Christmas was for Christians, holiday lights were for goys, and we weren’t among the 32% of Jews who have Hanukkah bushes. While I would always be a bit more cheerful when Hanukkah fell on the same day as Christmas (as it does this year), I never felt left out of the holidays. That is, until November 25th, 2016.

That was the day I took part in a beloved Bay Area tradition, The Dickens Fair -- a fantastical world based on Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, which is on full dioramic display inside the Cow Palace in Daly City. I had heard merry musings about this event over the years, mostly from my Renaissance Faire-attending (and often Christmas-celebrating) friends, but in nearly 30 years of Bay living I was unaware of the sheer spectacle that is Victorian London. Here, hundreds of costumed actors interact with equally well-attired attendees throughout 120,000sqft of theatrically-lit music halls, pubs, dance floors, and Christmas shops.

This dreamscape has sprung to life nearly every year since 1970. During each day of the Fair’s five weekend run, every day is Christmas Eve and filled with the merriment you would expect from your least dysfunctional side of the family. The air smells of cinnamon and nutmeg, the music is upbeat, and the “streets of London” are lined with lively shopkeepers ready to sell you finery for under your tree (or Hanukkah bush). Even I can get behind a version of 1850s London where everyone is in good spirits, so my friend and I donned our rose-colored, anachronistic glasses and headed back in time to the least depressing version of a Dickens novel.

dickens fair
Your humble editor, dockside. | Sarah Parsons

Hirsute and suited, we bid you Happy Christmas

With many thanks given to friends who costume, I donned a vest, bow tie, top hat (with press card in view), and a brilliant maroon smoking jacket on my first jaunt into Dickens’ London. I smoothed my mustache and tucked my long hair behind my ears as I attempted the façade of a newspaper reporter from way back when. I was immediately greeted by a smattering of “Happy Christmas, Sirs” as my photographer (and costumer) and I descended the long ramp to the Fair entrance. Shocked by how well I was pulling off my costume -- I hadn’t even started on my manly man walk yet -- I would soon understand why people took me seriously.

A lot of folks who attend the Dickens Fair are really, really into this shit. Men were dripping in tweed and plaid in their three-plus piece suits, wore fine hats, and had well-coiffed facial hair. Dozens upon dozens of women and girls wore full skirts and tightly bodiced tops that occasionally ranneth over, often with matching hats and dainty bags. Even the lower-caste characters were dressed well -- sailors wore perfectly punctured coats and dingy pants; bar wenches and milkmaids each effortlessly donned the duds of their profession. Many people spoke with British accents.

dickens fair
Champagne Charlie & the girls at Mad Sal's Dockside Ale House!. | Rich Yee

Attendees can spend hours costuming and often make dressing up a family affair -- I spoke with one woman in a gorgeous purple three-piece outfit whose family takes their holiday portrait, in costume, at the Fair every year. Another family of four excitedly posed in front of a Christmas tree, donning garb from seven years of Fair attendance. Their 11-year-old boy and his 7-year-old sister wore calf-length trouser pants and hats, while the mom smiled proudly in a burnt orange, handmade skirt and corset combo.

At Fezziwig’s Warehouse, costumed revelers were dancing a waltz to a live band. They spun in circles, switched partners on cue, then clapped politely at the end of the song. I turned to my photographer and whispered, “This is the waspiest shit ever. I can’t believe I’ve never been before.” She laughed and pulled me in the direction of the Grand Concourse, the beginnings of our trip down the rabbit hole.

We have Dickens to thank for all of our Christmas traditions

As Dickens would agree, every character needs a good origin story and his namesake fair is no exception. LA residents (and theater enthusiasts) Ron and Phyllis Patterson -- who were also responsible for creating The Renaissance Faire -- developed The Dickens Fair in 1970 after they hosted a popular Victorian-themed house party. In the early ‘60s, the Pattersons hosted children's improvisational theater workshops at their Los Angeles County home; colloquially, the couple also wanted to get children to read classic literature.

While you will find Dickens characters roaming the Fair, Kevin Patterson (who took over running the Fair for his parents) is into the spirit A Christmas Carol evokes. Many of our secular Christmas traditions such as a tree and caroling come from the book, he noted.

dickens fair sf
Rich Yee

“The very idea of [Christmas] being a spirit of camaraderie and getting together with loved ones is the adventure, really, of Ebenezer Scrooge,” Patterson told Thrillist. “The Dickens Christmas Fair is the perfect reflection of that. It is designed to be like a Victorian Christmas card -- beautifully etched and beautifully colored.”

Carolers, holiday revelers, and a not-yet-fat St. Nick all make appearances at the Dickens Fair, both on and off stage. There are also a host of performances and readings, as well as a family drama in the London Docks area -- should you require a bit of fighting to make the holidays more realistic.

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Ebenezer Scrooge is visited by the Ghost of Jacob Marley. | Rich Yee

Like Victorian-era London, there is a social structure

Although 19th-century England was the home to an incredible middle-class energy and innovation, it also had immense poverty. Dickens novels contrasted elegant streets with sordid back alleys, the bounty of the rich with “Please Sir, may I have some more” poverty. None of the sad stuff is on display at Dickens Fair, but there is status among the hundreds of volunteer actors -- many of whom have been participating in the Fair for decades.

Chuck Col. William Green, who wore a traditionally red British guard’s outfit with an ostrich feather hat as he guided Her Majesty Queen Victoria around the grounds (yes, there is a royal procession at the Fair), worked his way up from major to Leftenant Colonel over 13 years. There are many ways to get involved, he added, including volunteering with shopkeepers and joining clubs or guilds. A member of The Adventurers Club -- made up of the so-called “wheelpeople of England” -- Green is among the storytellers who dish about military and scientific exploits, as well as artistic achievements to eager fairgoers.

dickens fair sf
Rich Yee

There seemed to be a lighthearted rivalry between groups; Col. Green had no idea about the people “down at the docks” (one hall away) but suggested that his Privates had perhaps visited that dodgy end of town. While searching for a mysterious opium den near the Silk Road Stage, a “lower class” performer said she had no desire to gain entrance into the secret, upscale lair. “I’d rather be out here with the people,” she said in a faint Cockney accent.

Rumor has it that the opium den -- which we were not granted entrance to as we were unchaperoned -- was the place where some of the higher-up folks could carouse and consensually ply pretty girls with liquor (I imagine this is the Victorian version of a popular kid’s high school party). And, rest assured, there are plenty of pretty girls with pleasing countenances and immaculate ringlets in their hair at the Fair.

dickens fair

Still, everyone is welcome in Dickens’ London

Small rivalries aside, the Dickens Fair is overwhelmingly welcoming and a family affair. People come from all over the state to visit and show their wares -- including printer Justin Case, who brought two 19th-century printing machines and cases of type from Pacifica and Willets to print calling cards for Dickens characters.

“This is how I celebrate the Christmas holiday,” said Case, who has lugged the nearly 1,000lb presses to the Fair for years. “We get to work hard, side by side, with friends and family to make something really entertaining.”

Steven Overstreet, who designs, dyes, and sells clothing for women in Faigen’s Alley, has attended the Fair since 1975. Sitting on an over-stuffed chair while petting a sleepy black lab, Overstreet said each year brings constant improvement and a chance to see old friends.

“Every year is a reunion with friends that I’ve known for a long time. It’s definitely a family and a village,” he said.

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Steve Joynes demonstrates his craft at Fiddles 'N Such. | Amy Hart

The Dickens Fair is a lifestyle

I shouldn’t have been surprised that many of the well-dressed attendees have visited the Dickens Fair for longer than I’ve been alive. Early in the day, I encountered a duke and duchess (dressed in matching green and red getups, each with a dozen sparkly brooches) who have gone to the Fair for 37 years. The duchess has come down from Oregon for the event for the past 10 years, except for the year she had a knee replacement. While the couple are self-described “old sod folks” among participants, there are second and third generation Fair folk -- from 14-year-olds in braids working “telegraph operations” to pudgy 8-year-old town criers.

dickens fair
Rich Yee

“It’s really the highest version of this art form in the country, where authenticity and very intensely workshopped improvisational techniques allow characters to really come to life around you. That has gotten better like good wine over the years,” Patterson said.

In many cases, Fair actors work with their performing groups (those clubs and guilds) all year to hone their skills as a team and in an ensemble. Patterson’s organization, Red Barn Productions, rents a high school parking lot in Pacifica a month ahead of the event to build sets and practice. Actors’ costumes must be approved ahead of the show, and anachronistic integrity is of the highest importance for performers and vendors.

Even though creating a link between Charles Dickens and the Bay Area requires some serious poetic license, The Dickens Fair is truly an only-in-the-Bay event.

dickens fair
Flickr/Quinn Dombrowski

“I feel as if there is a freedom to this art form that particularly resonates with San Francisco. There’s a longstanding tradition of people enjoying dressing up in costume and interacting with bizarre and wonderful characters, and The Dickens Fair is certainly full of all sorts of artistic opportunity,” Patterson said. “I really feel like San Francisco knows how to do that and has supported it for all of these decades. [The Fair] becomes more popular every year.”

After one last twirl at Fezziwig’s, my photographer and I left the streets of London and headed into the similarly foggy avenues of Daly City. The cockles of our hearts were so warm with Christmas cheer, neither of us wanted to remove our costumes -- including my incredibly itchy ‘stache, which managed to stay on for a full five hours; the holidays are truly magical.

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Jessica Lipsky is a Thrillist Cities Editor whose mustache is quite handsome. Follow her Victorian cross-dressing adventures on Twitter at @JessicaLipsky.