An authentic Victorian holiday at The Great Dickens Christmas Fair

Courtesy photoFamous people: Queen Victoria herself is among the dozens of characters populating the Great Dickens Christmas Fair at the Cow Palace.

Courtesy photoFamous people: Queen Victoria herself is among the dozens of characters populating the Great Dickens Christmas Fair at the Cow Palace.

San Francisco is known for its sophistication and flair — and partying with Charles Dickens is no exception.
#link_box { width: 150px; height: auto; margin: 0; padding: 0; margin: 10px 20px 10px 0px; padding: 10px; background-color: #fbfade; /* ecru – light yellow */ border: 1px solid #343a25; /* green – for summer arts */ float: left; font-family: arial, sans serif; font-size: 11px; } #link_box img, #link_box a { border 0px; border-style: none; outline: none; } #link_box h1 { margin: 0; padding: 5px; border-bottom: 1px solid #ddd; text-transform: uppercase; color: #000; font-family: arial, sans serif; font-weight: bold; font-size: 12px; text-align: center; } #link_box ul { list-style: none; margin: 0; padding: 0; border: none; } #link_box li { margin: 0px padding: 0px; border-bottom: 1px solid #ddd; border-bottom-width: 1px; } #link_box li a { display: block; padding: 5px 5px 5px 15px; /* Padding for bullet */ /* border-bottom: 1px solid #ddd; border-bottom-width: 1px; */ color: #000; width: 100%; width: auto; /* height: auto; */ /* border: 1px solid blue; */ margin: 0px; font-family: arial, sans serif; font-size: 11px; line-height: 14px; text-decoration: none; } #link_box li a: before { /* background-position: top left; */ } #link_box li a:hover { background-color: #ddd; color: #000; }

The Great Dickens Christmas Fair comes to the Cow Palace on Nov. 25, bringing the smell of roasted chestnuts and the magic of a Victorian Yuletide. The dazzling production  — which runs four weekends — transforms more than three acres of exhibition space into the narrow streets, quaint shops and busy pubs of 19th-century London.

“It’s beautiful that we can produce this, that we have this jewel,” says actor Robert Young, the fair’s theatrical director. “It’s Christmas when it was still very young and innocent.”

It takes a lot of magical lighting to create old London at twilight, but it works. Hand-painted signs advertising elixirs and absinthe look just as they did when Dickens roamed his beloved city. The costumed characters go about their day, perhaps performing on one of several stages or interacting with fairgoers as they stroll streets scattered with faux snow.

“Everything good about Christmas in old London is here, and it’s all real,” says fair director Kevin Patterson.

More than 700 costumed performers are on hand, including Queen Victoria and Edgar Allan Poe  — not to mention regular folks like chimney sweeps and London bobbies. This is interactive theater at its best, so don’t be surprised if Fagan tries to recruit your kid as a pickpocket.

The elaborate event offers plenty of other treats, such as a toy parade with Father Christmas, a hand-powered carousel with jungle animals and vendors selling handmade wares. There’s an all-new “Lewis Caroling” show and a children’s painting garden.

Grown-ups will enjoy the popular “Saucy French Postcard Tableaux Revue” (for 18 and up only), as well as the can-can show at Mad Sal’s Dockside Alehouse.

The fair was started in 1970 by Ron and Phyllis Patterson, who produced the original Renaissance Faire in Marin. The family, which ran that fair for more than three decades, wanted to do a winter event.

“My parents were really charmed and intrigued by the indoor markets in London,” says Kevin Patterson, who has been at the helm for the past 12 years. “We hit the ground running and never looked back.”

It takes three weeks to set up, he says. Everything is stored in a 12,000-square-foot warehouse on Mare Island and then delivered in 14 tractor-trailers.

The fair is expected to draw more than 40,000 visitors. As it gets closer to Christmas, Patterson suggests coming later in the day and enjoying dinner and a show to beat the crowds: “Stay until we throw you out.”

The men who make the fair

If Occupy Wall Street needs a leader, look no farther than Ebenezer Scrooge.

Scrooge — the redeemed Scrooge, of course — would be at the front of the line, says Martin Harris, the British actor who plays him at The Great Dickens Christmas Fair.

“How foolish we are to be so focused on me, me, me,” says Harris, slipping into the gravelly voice of Scrooge. “I was probably as bad as the bankers — clutching to the money, as much as I could get.”

Scrooge’s metamorphosis into Mr. Nice Guy is what makes “A Christmas Carol” such a poignant story. The message that true joy is found by giving back to others is just as relevant today, Harris says.

 “Whatever age you are, this is a story for you,” says Harris, who has played the role for more than a decade.

Dickens is played by Robert Young, the fair’s theatrical director. The world-famous Englishman has plenty of fans — as well as a few critics.

“I get the rare person who comes along and shakes their finger at me and tells me how poorly I treated my wife,” says Young, who has played Dickens for more than 20 years.

Young has spent time in England researching the writer’s life. Dickens, he says, penned “A Christmas Carol” in about six weeks.

“We needed money,” he says, speaking as Dickens. “I had to write something very quickly.”

Fairgoers might see Dickens dining at his home with his family or speaking at a club. Wandering around the streets, they also might see Sherlock Holmes or Jules Verne.

Over the years, the performers have included doctors, lawyers, real-estate agents and housewives, Young says. Many are loyal customers of the fair’s well-stocked antiquarian bookseller. Plenty of visitors also dress up in period costume and show up every day.

“They’re addicted. They love it,” says Harris. “Where else are you going to find something this real and this entertaining?”

— Cathy Bowman


The Great Dickens Christmas Fair

Where: Cow Palace, 2600 Geneva Ave., San Francisco

When: Opens Nov. 25; 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays; closes Dec. 18

Cost: $12 to $25, free for children under 5; passes and discounts available

Contact: (800) 510-1558,

Note: Parking costs $10, but a free shuttle runs from the Glen Park BART station

Art & MuseumsartsentertainmenteventsGreat Dickens Christmas Fair

Just Posted

A large crack winds its way up a sidewalk along China Basin Street in Mission Bay on Friday, Sept. 24, 2021. (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)
San Francisco’s sinking sidewalks: Is climate change to blame?

‘In the last couple months, it’s been a noticeable change’

For years, Facebook employees have identified serious harms and proposed potential fixes. CEO Mark Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg have rejected the remedies, causing whisteblowers to multiple. (Eric Thayer/The New York Times)
Facebook’s problems at the top: Social media giant is not listening to whistleblowers

Whistleblowers multiply, but Zuckerberg and Sandberg don’t heed their warnings

Maria Jimenez swabs her 7-year-old daughter Glendy Perez for a COVID-19 test at Canal Alliance in San Rafael on Sept. 25. (Penni Gladstone/CalMatters)
Rapid COVID-19 tests in short supply in California

‘The U.S. gets a D- when it comes to testing’

Niners quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo led a late-game comeback against the Packers, but San Francisco lost, 30-28, on a late field goal. (Courtesy of San Francisco 49ers)
The Packers beat the Niners in a heartbreaker: Don’t panic

San Francisco is no better and no worse than you thought they were.

A new ruling will thwart the growth of solar installation companies like Luminalt, which was founded in an Outer Sunset garage and is majority woman owned. (Philip Cheung, New York Times)
A threat to California’s solar future and diverse employment pathways

A new ruling creates barriers to entering the clean energy workforce

Most Read