Thursday, November 19, 2015

A Christmas Tradition

Smell is one of our most powerful senses...  Think about it - ever catch a whiff of something and all of a sudden a memory of long ago is triggered in your mind??  Happens to me all the time, a certain perfume can remind me of a summer filled with fun or the smell of the forest conjures up thoughts of camping in the woods with my family as a child.  And oh, the smell of gingerbread - well, we all know what kinds of wonderful Christmas memories that can retrieve from the depths of your mind.

Chimney Sweep
Photo Credit:  Joshua Ets-Hokin
There's one more smell though, that can snap images of Christmastimes past into my  head faster than anything....  The smell, that wonderful, glorious smell that weaves its way throughout the Cow Palace in San Francisco each and every Christmas season.... the luscious smell of spiced, roasted nuts, chestnuts roasting, cinnamon and a bevvy of foods too numerous to mention.... the smell that greets you when you enter... The Great Dickens Christmas Fair.

The Great Dickens Christmas Fair
is fun for the whole family!
Photo credit: Raymond Van Tassel
A beloved Bay Area tradition since 1970, the Great Dickens Christmas Fair features over three acres of exhibition halls magically transformed into an old-world English Christmas card.  Imagine a lovingly re-created slice of Charles Dickens’ London, warmly lit and gaily decorated, with streets, shops, pubs, tea rooms, lecture halls, theatres, a grand Music Hall, the London Dockside and more than 700 costumed players who bring the city to life. 

The opportunity to applaud, carouse, dance, and mingle in a festive Victorian world is an enchanting alternative to the typical commercial fare of the season and makes the Great Dickens Christmas Fair and Victorian Holiday Party the perfect event for the entire family to enjoy.

Her Majesty Queen Victoria
Photo Credit:  Joshua Ets-Hokin
The Great Dickens Christmas Fair brings back the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and feel of the times that have made Yuletide the most beloved holiday of the year,” says Kevin Patterson, director of the Fair. “Everything good about traditional holiday celebrations is here, and it’s all driven by our passion for authenticity in theatrical presentation, history and handcrafts.”

Manly men vie for audience applause
in the infamous Broadside Music Hall Revue.
Photo credit: Rich Yee
New entertainment this year includes Richardson's Empire of Wondersa Victorian sideshow filled with whimsical wonders and curious conundrums; a sprightly production of the perennial favorite Pinocchio; and a new “Christmas Carol” environmental theater.

Fairgoers of all ages will meet the characters of Charles Dickens’ London face-to-face, as more than 700 costumed players combine their talents to create an authentic Victorian holiday experience. You might behold the great Queen Victoria herself, along with her dashing Prince Albert. Or
Will Ebenezer Scrooge have a change of
heart, and partake of Yuletide cheer?
Or will he share the fate of Jacob Marley?
Photo credit: Raymond Van Tassel
discover the daring female writer George Sand dressed in trousers and strolling with Charles Dickens, Jules Verne, or Lewis Carroll.  A multitude of fictional characters, like Ebenezer Scrooge, Sherlock Holmes, Tiny Tim, and the Mad Hatter mingle with colorful street
characters of the periodroving chimney sweeps, musicians, carolers, London bobbies, magicians, and saucy dance hall girls. If you can, get there before they open to watch the opening scene of each day's fair where Charles Dickens, himself opens the day by introducing many of his literary characters who have come to life including Mr. Scrooge himself. 

A maid prepares for High Tea at Cuthbert's
Tea Shoppe, where patrons may enjoy
exquisite scones and tasty tea sandwiches
(reservations required for High Tea).
Photo credit: Raymond Van Tassel
The Dickens Christmas Fair also offers a variety of toothsome treats and delectable dishes to tempt all palates. When hunger strikes, fairgoers may refresh themselves with traditional holiday goodies, including a feast of roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, goose or quail, fish & chips, duck a l’orange, hot meat pies, plum pudding, mulled cider and scones, hot roasted chestnuts, Ambrosia truffles, or Mrs. Bumble’s Sugar Plums.  This year’s newest delectables include Confounding Confections – delightful candies that are vegan, all-natural, and free of gluten and common allergens. The Fair features five authentic English pubs serving libations for all ages, including champagne, hot chocolate, hot buttered rum, or a pint of stout or ale on draft.

The Gingerbread Man may have met his
match in the wild and wooly Christmas
Photo Credit: Raymond Van Tassel
Holiday entertainment opportunities abound for both the young and the young at heart. For the little ones, there are visits with Father Christmas, a hand-powered Adventure Carousel, Punch & Judy puppet shows, a parade with Mother Goose, a children’s painting garden, as well as the chance to meet characters from A Christmas Carol, Oliver Twist, and Nicholas Nickleby.

Proper young ladies have their hair
beautifully braided at the Great Dickens
Christmas Fair.
Photo credit: Rich Yee
Youngsters can also try their hand at being “printer’s devils” with an actual 1860s printing press, learn to tie intricate knots and sing sea chanteys at the Paddy West School of Seamanship, become adorned with temporary tattoos or French braiding, or create their own holiday gifts such as rolled beeswax candles and hand-painted ceramic ornaments. They can also create their own miniature Fairy house, or learn to play darts at the Cat ‘n Bull Dart & Gaming Parlour.

A young shopkeeper offers Victorian
reproductions and other unique gifts at the
Great Dickens Christmas Fair.
Photo credit: Rich Yee
Bid farewell to the frenetic shopping malls of the 21st century and find that perfect one-of-a-kind holiday gift in the shops of Victorian London.  Each year, more than 100 costumed vendors offer their artisan wares, including Victorian reproductions, fine art, romantic clothing, handsome drinkware, unusual ceramics, dazzling jewelry and accessories, even an overstocked antiquarian bookseller.

More raffish patrons may enjoy the "high
life" to be found at Mad Sal's Dockside Ale
House, at the Great Dickens Christmas Fair.
Photo credit: Rich Yee
Adult patrons love to gather at Mad Sal’s Dockside Ale House to sing rowdy favorites and watch high-kicking dancers take to the stage for the wicked Can-Can Bijou. The immensely popular and roguish “Saucy French Postcard Tableaux Revue,” with all new tableaux vivants, returns to the Victoria & Albert Bijou Music Hall.  This Twilight Hour entertainment is sure to beguile and delight the adults in the audience. Admission to this attraction is free, but you must request tickets upon arrival at the Fair; they go quickly and guests must be 18 or older to gain admission.

Old Father Christmas carefully attends to
the heartfelt holiday wishes of all good girls
and boys, daily on the Father Christmas Stage.
Photo credit: Raymond Van Tassel
Celebrate the holidays at the 36th annual Great Dickens Christmas Fair and Victorian Holiday Party.  The world’s most elaborate and authentic Victorian Christmas event kicks off on November 21st  and continues weekends through Sunday, December 20, 2015 at San Francisco’s historic Cow Palace, 2600 Geneva Ave.

General Admission tickets are available at the Box Office (see website as prices vary each weekend), and wee ones under 5 are free. Tickets are not date-specific (admission is good any one day of the Fair), and are fully transferable.

Mr Scrooge
Photo Credit:  Joshua Ets-Hokin
A Tip from Scrooge: For the very best-priced tickets, print-at-home discount tickets are made available at; Season Passes are also available online.

Parking is $10 per vehicle (charged by the Cow Palace). The Fair offers a free shuttle from the Glen Park BART station. Group rates are available for parties of 15 or more; contact Terry Rosenstock,, 415-668-0525.

For more information, please call (800) 510-1558 x 114 or visit

And by all means, while you're there, take a few minutes to stop and smell the smells - before you know it, you too, will come to think of those smells as a Christmastime favorite (I admit, I try every year to mix together the right combination of goodness to re-create those smells in my home - I often come close, but I've never yet hit it on the head).

This is, by far, my very favorite holiday event.  It has been republished and updated from last year.  It's a don't miss for the holiday season - after 17 years of visiting, it's just not Christmas without it!!

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