By Sabrina Cardoso, Style Editor
Photos by Sabrina Cardoso & Paris Kim
It always amazes me that every year, when I start talking about my holiday plans and mention attending The Great Dickens Christmas Fair, I get a few people who have never heard of Dickens!
The Great Dickens Christmas Faire has been a bay area institution since 1970 but its roots go back to 1968 and a holiday party that took place in the Hollywood Hills. Ron and Phyllis Patterson, the creators of the concept of Renaissance Faires and who produced the Great Renaissance Faire that now makes it home at Casa De Fruita, decided to host a holiday party at their home in the winter of 1968. This party was the spring board for what is now the Dickens Fair.
Phyllis and Ron departed from the Ren theme for this party and themed the costumes, food, games and decorations after the late 19th century and the novels of Charles Dickens. The party was such a success that it was suggested that it become a yearly tradition and maybe be done on a larger scale.
The Patterson’s had already expanded their production of the Renaissance Faire in Marin County in Northern California and their eyes turned toward San Francisco and the old brick warehouses that lined Fisherman’s Warf, which reminded them of Victorian London. Soon what was once a private holiday party was being reimagined as a holiday faire open to the public.
The first Dickens Fair, or The Great Dickens Christmas Fair and Pickwick Comic Con as it was originally called, opened in 1970 and ran for three weekends at the Anchor Works, located in the waterside Embarcadero district which is now Levi Plaza.
One newspaper account at the time said that the fair was like entering a movie set or being cast in a pageant.
“The early Renaissance Pleasure Faires and Dickens Christmas Fairs had a signiﬁcant inﬂuence on American culture by promoting the revival of handicrafts and folk music, the concept of ﬁrst-person interpretive living history, and improvisational theater. They have always provided a means of rebelling against the formulaic province of television, mass manufacturing, and the homogenization inherent in the modern world. To the performer and to the patron alike they provide an opportunity for interactive playfulness, and a connection with our shared folk history.” ~ dickensfair.com
Over the years the fair has had several locations before returning to and settling at the Cow Palace in Daly City in 2000. The 1971 fair was held at the Haslet Warehouse Wharfside at Fisherman’s Warf, 1972-1975, the Old Produce Market on Army Street under highway 280, 1977 and 1978 were at the Cow Palace, 1979 and 1980 were held at Fort Mason, 1983 and 84 saw the fair reborn at the Fox Theater in Oakland, 1986 – 1988 happened at Pier 45, 1990 was held at the Cal Expo in Sacramento. After a five-year hiatus, the Dickens Fair was held once again at Pier 45 and then in 2000 moved to the Cow Palace. There are several gaps in the time line when the fair went dark, most notably in 1989 when the Loma Prieta Earthquake cracked Pier 45 right down the center. This past year, many, many patrons and entertainers fought to keep from a bill from passing that could have open the door to replacing the Cow Palace with housing units and to make sure the Dickens Fair along with other important community events, continued to have a home and that the traditions continued.
When you arrive at the fair you are greeted with “Happy Christmas!!”. Actors are fully dressed in Victorian garb and patrons often attend wearing Victorian, Civil War and even Steampunk garb. The interior of the building has been decked out to look like the streets of London. There are vendors to the left and right of you selling anything from Christmas decorations, jewelry, clothing, soap to yummy things to eat. You can purchase hats at Madame Louise’s Fashion Accessories, rare and vintage books from Fitz-Gerald Manor Shop, soap from Wormwood’s Workhouse, beautiful bits of glass from Oudeman Art Glass and even watch a craftsman making a fine instrument at Fiddles N’ Such.
There are several bars where you can purchase, ales, hard cider, hot buttered rum and mulled wine among other things. You can even stop in at the Bohemain Bar to sample some Absinthe and there are Port tastings at The Prince Edward or The Mermaid, (tickets required for Port tasting). The food vendors offer a wide variety of meals to suit your fancy. From fish and chips at HMS Fish and Chips, turkey and duck served at the Tippling Toad, traditional meat pies and scones from Heritage Meat Pies or if you want something that is not English, try visiting Acropolis Greek Food. If you prefer a full tea service, Cuthbert’s tea shop is the place to go. Sit down to a nice pot of tea, scones, finger sandwiches, desserts and a surprise gift to take home. For those who have a sweet tooth, perhaps a chocolate confection from Bramosia Fine Chocolate & Candies, Lemon Curd from Two English Ladies or maybe some rum cake from London’s Finest Cakes & Puddings.
There is entertainment along with all of the other wonders of the fair. You can learn to dance a jig or a waltz at Fezziwig’s Warehouse, listen to opera at Her Majesty’s Royal Opera Gala or new for the 2019 season, watch Sherlock Holmes and the Giant Rat of Sumatra. If your tastes lean towards more bawdy entertainment, head down to Mad Sal’s and check out the doxes and the wicked Le Cancan Bijou. For after hours, adult only entertainment, you can get free tickets to Saucy French Postcards, seating is limited so get your tickets early in the day. All of this and that is just the tip of the ice berg! I don’t want to ruin all surprises for you but make sure you keep your eyes peeled for some of Dickens most beloved characters wandering the streets of London.
The Great Dickens Christmas Faire is truly a marvel to behold. It has become a tradition with my friends and family. I hope you can attend and enjoy such a wonderful event as well!
Learn more about the Dickens Fair and plan your visit today at
California native Sabrina Cardoso has dressed for almost every century with her wide knowledge of historical fashions and participations in period reenactments (you can find her starring as Mary Fleming, cousin of the Queen and head lady-in-waiting across many local Scottish Guild events). She also runs Timeless Elegance, an insightful Facebook Page featuring historical archives on beauty and fashion.