Returning to the Cow Palace for its 36th year, the Great Dickens Christmas Fair & Victorian Holiday Party has kicked off once again for several weekends (November 22 - December 21) of mulled wine and Yorkshire pudding, jigs and reels stomped out by revelers, soot-cheeked chimney sweeps and restless spirits scuttling about, and three acres of shopping and entertainment. A charming pastiche of the Victorian era inspired by the works of Charles Dickens, the Fair rests in a pocket universe frozen in time, not entirely unlike something from a Doctor Who Christmas special.
Although it doesn't take long to get swept up in the ambiance, for a first time visitor, the Fair can seem a bit daunting. With just a little bit of planning and strategizing, however, you can cover a large swath of what the Fair has to offer in one full day and still have enough energy for a dance or two.
The first thing to think about is your outfit. Regardless of what you wear from your head to your ankles (oh, those scandalous ankles), you must make sure your feet are comfortable. Once you've got that figured out, you're half way there. When it comes to the rest of the look, if you have Victorian garb, go for it (following the Fair's guidelines), or just come as you are and be a time traveler. Not all of us are blessed with sewing and tailoring abilities, or the foresight to plan historically accurate outfits months in advance. An ensemble that echoes the Victorian wardrobe can be put together from modern pieces, bearing in mind color palettes (festive jewel tones and plaid are always reliable), silhouettes, and fabrics like wool, velvet and heavy cotton (it is winter, after all). Bay Area-based costume historian Kendra Van Cleave has a helpful guide to films set in the Victorian era, rating them with costume design as a key factor, which can provide some inspiration.
It also helps to know a little bit about the culture and history of Victorian times. It's certainly not required but it adds to the immersive context. Although, officially, the Victorian Era spans the period between 1832-1901, the Fair draws its inspiration from the period when the author Charles Dickens was writing and publishing his works, from about 1836 to his death in 1870. The biggest influence on the theme of the Dickens Fair is A Christmas Carol. For a refresher, you can read the book right now over on Project Gutenberg, or if you prefer the screen adaptations, there are plenty to choose from. The fun, if sometimes buggy, quiz game created by McCord Museum in Montreal is also a neat way to find out if you'd be able to navigate the social intricacies of the Victorian era.
Before we go into anything else, I must get one item out of the way: meat pies. Probably the number one thing that I won't stop talking about when the topic of Dickens Fair comes up is a meat pie from the Heritage Meat Pies stall. And I'm not the only one in love with those delicious, gravy-filled goodies with a golden flaky crust, from Shepherd's Pies to Cornish Pasties. The line to the stall is one of the longer ones at the Fair and chances are you'll want to eat them for breakfast, lunch and dinner, which is why I recommend you get to the Fair early.