The Great Dickens Holiday Fair: How to Make the Most of Victorian London

Photo: Rich Yee

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.

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Photo credit: Rich Yee (Photo credit: Rich Yee)

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.

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Photo credit: Heritage Meat Pies Facebook

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.

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A few other enjoyments require a little bit of additional planning. While you could spend the day grazing on candied almonds, roasted chestnuts and little pies (I've done it!), a full sit down meal in a quaint setting is another option. A tea served at Cuthbert's Tea Shoppe includes all the standard fixings - scones, cucumber sandwiches, trifles and the like - while The Tippling Toad offers more hearty fair. Advance reservations for both places are recommended.

A meal at The Tippling Toad also includes a ticket to the French Postcard revue. The limited number of tickets, which don't cost a thing but are required to be allowed admission to the popular show, can also be picked up at the Telegraph Booth on a first come, first serve basis - if you are 18+ years of age, that is. Taking place twice in the late afternoon in the Victoria & Albert Bijou Music Hall, the French Postcards are salacious 19th century photos come to life, with each year's tableaux featuring a theme, from nymphs and satyrs frolicking about, to bewhiskered captains and blushing maids caught in flagrante. By modern standards, the scenarios are quite tame, but, true to their burlesque spirit, they are a cheeky glimpse into the titillations of the era.

Photo credit: Rich Yee
Photo credit: Rich Yee (Photo credit: Rich Yee)

With pasties of both kinds bookending the day, there are plenty of activities for all ages to fill the time in between, when you're not shopping for presents and souvenirs from the many local (yay!) vendors at the fair. In fact, for a lot of people the Fair is entirely about shopping and people watching, but if you want to take a break from the temptations of beautiful leather masks, hand milled soaps, and loads of other unique crafts, here are some suggestion -- in no particular order -- to make for a well-rounded visit to Victorian London:

  • The Crummles Theatrical Company presents its newest production, Revenge of the Bandit Queen, promising sword-play and hilarious hijinks. Francis Farrington’s Metropolitan Music Hall & Pandemonia Britannia, meanwhile, is a family-friendly comedic musical showcase happening twice daily, and each performance is unique. Both are new additions to the stage of the Victoria & Albert Hall.
  • Across from the V&A Hall, pop by the print shop booth for a demonstration of a printing press from 1860 and snag a copy of the Fair's Bulletin (a new issue is printed each weekend).
  • A great deal of innovation and ingenuity took place in the 19th century, from the development of railroads and gas lighting, to photography and new modes of communication. It was also a great time for culture, with the Pre-Raphaelites shaking up the art world. At the Adventurers Club, you can get into that spirit of 19th century innovation by listening to talks given by intrepid explorers, historians and artists. At the Great Exhibition Stage, you can also behold marvels of science and engineering, like the Tempest Prognosticator, a barometer powered by leeches.
  • Stop by the Telegraph Booth to place a message and it will be delivered to a friend at the fair by a young fleet-footed messenger.
  • Learn some sea shanties by the Paddy West Stage at the London Docks, or if you haven't got impressionable youths with you, make your way to Mad Sal's for more salty entertainment.
  • At the Dickens Family Parlour, peeking through the windows into someone's household is not only allowed but encouraged.
  • Rested? Sated? Head on over to Fezziwig's for some dancing and occasional parlor games. The dance floor has room for dancers of all experience levels, and the seasoned Dickens Fair regulars are often eager to introduce newcomers to a polka, reel or waltz.

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Whether you spend your day mingling at the bar with friends over mugs of hot buttered rum (or glasses of absinthe), doing all your holiday gift shopping, or sitting in on every musical performance available, there is something for everyone to enjoy in the company of hundreds of other happy revelers. Regardless of what you do, it's the spirit of things that really matters. In the words of Charles Dickens himself, “There is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good humor.”

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