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Great Dickens Christmas Fair returns to Cow Palace after boycott

Couples dance while clad in Victorian era clothing at the Great Dickens Christmas Fair.
People in Victorian era clothing dance at the Great Dickens Christmas Fair dance at the Cow Palace in Daly City on Friday. | Source: Gina Castro/The Standard

The Artful Dodger runs what is almost surely the Bay Area’s only pop-up pickpocket school for children.

“We teach them how to pilfer,” the Dodger told The Standard with a twinkle in his eye. “The moral of the story is, always steal, and never listen to your parents.”

Covered in chimney ash and wearing a black top hat, if the loose-lipped thief looked like he stepped out of Victorian England that was no mistake; he’s one of dozens of characters bringing the works of author Charles Dickens alive at the annual Great Dickens Christmas Fair.

For five weekends this holiday season, the Cow Palace in Daly City is transformed into a 19th century London street corner. Dressed-up characters squawking in British accents weave in and out of attendees—some in costume themselves and others in T-shirts—as vendors hawk mulled wine, violins and puzzle rings.

An actor poses for a photo dressed as a Victorian-era thief.
Veronica Mound, dressed as the Artful Dodger, poses for a picture at the Great Dickens Christmas Fair. | Source: Gina Castro/The Standard

The Artful Dodger of Dickens’ world is a notorious pickpocket who tries to turn Oliver Twist into a scofflaw. But the Artful Dodger of the Cow Palace is Veronica Maund, a 25-year-old San Francisco native, who has performed at the fair since 2015 and says her greatest challenge is keeping character around people she knows.

“I have to tell them, ‘I can’t break character,’” Maund said. “I’ve had some family come and try to throw me off.” 

Launched in San Francisco in 1970, the Great Dickens Christmas Fair is produced by Red Barn Production, a venture created by Ron and Phyllis Patterson, who also started the first Renaissance Fair, according to spokesperson Denise Lamott.

The 2023 production kicked off on Nov. 18 and will continue to run on the weekends through Dec. 17. The fair features musical and comedic performances, dance parties, a carousel, a series of bars and food stands, over 100 shops and, of course, the opportunity to interact with a who's who of colorful Dickens characters.

Patrons walks through the main concourse at the Great Dickens Fair.
Attendees of the Great Dickens Christmas Fair walk around, taking in the sights on the concourse. | Source: Gina Castro/The Standard

Recent years have been rocky for the event. It was virtual in 2020 because of Covid. Then, in 2021, 200 cast members pledged to boycott over concerns that organizers failed to address racist and sexist treatment of participants, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. That included Black performers getting called slaves and a VIP bar called the Opium Den that drew criticism for playing on Asian stereotypes.

Earlier this month, the protesters announced that they had reached an agreement with festival organizers, and they called off their two-year-long boycott.

A Welcome Return to the Dickens Fair

Many participants were ecstatic to be at the festival.

“This is more Christmas to me than Christmas back home,” said Nadya Geras-Carson.

A sculptor who traveled from Eugene, Oregon, to sell her art at the event, Geras-Carson has been attending since 1984. She cherishes the breakfasts the craftspeople and actors share each morning before the gates open to the public.

“It gets to be like family,” Geras-Carson said.

Two actors in Victorian Era garb.
Violet Sanders, dressed as Oliver Twist, left, and Saiya Woodruff, dressed as Charlie Bates, pose for a picture at the Great Dickens Christmas Fair. | Source: Gina Castro/The Standard

Melinda Coy, meanwhile, came from Sacramento to play Esther Summerson, a character she proudly proclaimed to be Dickens’s only female narrator and less-proudly made clear was not very clever.

The performance is a welcome balance to Coy’s day job in housing law compliance for the state of California, she said. Now 45, she’s been acting at interactive theater events since she was a teenager. When Coy is at the event, life’s troubles melt away and she can’t help but feel joy, she said.

That certainly seemed to be the state of mind for the young Oliver Twist, played by 13-year-old Violet Sanders, flanked by character Charlie Bates—Saiya Woodroff—and the only performer who introduced themselves by their actual name, Sebastian Pasgen. The trio merrily harangued constable Philbert Upthagrove Jr.—Rob Zeroun—and expressed shock at any suggestion that they might hail from the American city of San Francisco.

Festival-goers rest on a bench.
Attendees of the Great Dickens Christmas Fair rest on a bench. | Source: Gina Castro/The Standard

Alicia Estrella, Bee Trechroci and Clara Bellinger were much more open about their modern American roots. The fish and chips at the event were “bomb,” the festivalgoers said, and they paired it with Guinness to double down on the British experience.

Trechroci and Bellinger have been attending since they were 5 years old and said the smell of the event—a mixture of hay, sugar nuts and unscented candles—sends them reeling through the years.

“It’s one thing that you know is going to be constant, the same,” they said. “It feels like being a kid again.”

Noah Baustin can be reached at nbaustin@sfstandard.com