Special commemoration celebrations like the Afternoon High Tea hosted by “Mr. Chas. Dickens” for members of the press on the opening weekend the day after Thanksgiving highlighted this year’s fair in particular.
Born in 1812, Charles Dickens was the second of eight children. His father was an office clerk. With so many to feed and the father’s over spending, Dickens was forced to leave school at age 12 and work in a factory. His parents and younger siblings were sent to debtor’s prison, while the lad Dickens helped to pay off his father’s debts.
This and other hardships were the basis for many of Dickens’ novels. Most scholars and historians agree Dickens was among the most prolific writers of the Victorian Era. And, it is because of the many works he produced the annual Dickens Christmas Fair at the Cow Palace is filled with over 700 characters. “We believe we have more Dickens characters brought to life here at the Cow Palace more so than any other place in the world,” said the fair’s producer and CEO, Kevin Patterson, of Red Barn Productions.
Following in his father’s footsteps, Patterson strives to uphold the fair as a local holiday tradition.
For over 30 years the Patterson family has been bringing this “living Victorian Christmas card” to audiences even when “there were times we did not think the fair would be able to go on,” said Patterson’s mother Phyllis. She talked with this reporter some time ago, about the origins of the Great Dickens Fair and mentioned that it all basically started as a theme for a holiday party for family and friends. That little family party at home grew into an annual event.
Yet what helped the event to carry on was the dedication and commitment of hundreds of people volunteering their time to ensure the fair would go on. And, even with new additions of other Victorian novel characters
like Alice in Wonderland or Captain Nemo from “20 Thousand Leagues Under the Sea,” The Patterson’s consider everyone who contributes, participates and attends the fair to be part of one large extended family.
Local actor Robert Young
has been with the Dickens Fair for over 20 years. “I began portraying Charles Dickens for the fair in 1990.” Over the past two decades, Young has devoted much of his acting and study to a deeper understanding of Dickens and his times. He entertained the press that opening weekend after Thanksgiving at the Afternoon High Tea at 2 PM.
This reporter asked him if after so many years the role gets tired. “Putting together a production like this can be stressful, what we have here is ‘immersion theater’ there is nothing else like it. There is no curtain and no ‘fourth wall’ between the audience,” said Young. But, he quickly noted how much the effort is all worth it when he sees visitors “spark up and take in the experience.”
Both Young and Patterson mentioned one of the reasons why the Christmas Fair endures
is because much of what we Americans appreciate about Christmas is due in large part to the work of Dickens. The greeting card, the Christmas tree and the visit from Santa Claus (or Father Christmas) were all promoted in large part by Dickens’ work in “A Christmas Carol.” When Dickens went on speaking tours audiences loved to watch him read and perform his works. And, when his works were brought to stage, screen and television, this greatly enhanced America’s appreciation of Christmas.
Patterson explained why the Dickens legacy endures. “Dickens is an important writer because he brought to life so many characters and imbued them with a lively aspect that was tremendous.” Young agreed, saying that “his development of characters and their descriptions people can relate to very well.” Both he and Patterson likened Dickens to the greatness of Shakespeare, especially regarding the portrayal of various characters for their “universal aspects that all people can recognize.”
Professor Rosemary Ashton of University College in London
contacted this reporter from ‘across-the-pond’ to clarify that what Dickens created with his energy of writing was the ‘archetype figure’, such as Scrooge for example, who comes to represent a certain aspect of human nature. “Not in a tired or clichéd way, that’s a ‘stereotype,’ she said, but in such a vital way that such figures come to be exactly what we mean when we think of a miser,” said Professor Ashton.
When it is said that man is “a Scrooge, everyone knows what we mean,” said Ashton. Recently retired from her position as Quain Professor of English Language and Literature at UCL, Ashton noted that the characters Dickens created speak to a “deep, fundamental human concern or fear, and so becomes the mythic embodiment of such a deep concern,” she said. This is why she explained works like “A Christmas Carol lives on,” said Ashton.
She credits the recent renditions of Dickens' works produced by the BBC
as helping to foster an even more expanded appreciation of his works to current contemporary audiences.
The Great Dickens Fair
continues each weekend until Dec. 23, at the Cow Palace
at 2600 Geneva Ave, San Francisco. Doors open at 10 AM and close at 7 PM. For more info visit www.dickensfair.com
or call 800-510-1558, Ext. 114