Recently I went to the Dickens Christmas Fair, which runs Nov. 23 through Dec. 23 up at the Cow Palace in San Francisco. The Dickens Fair is an annual Christmas event centered on the works of Charles Dickens with all the trappings of London in Victorian times.
This is the first time I've gone, so I roamed around exploring the elaborate settings filled with what seemed like hundreds of people in convincing Victorian costumes. The Dickens Fair occupies a series of connected rooms with themes inspired by historic locations in London. You can visit the Victoria and Albert Music Hall to see opera, illusionists, and carolers, attend Fezziwig's dance party, stop by Paddy West Stage at the London Docks, Mad Sal's, and any number of other venues. Ale House Alley represents the seedier side of London with scruffy looking men playing dice, flirty women in heavy makeup, and a bar where you can try absinthe—I didn't because I knew I had to drive home.
Instead, I stopped by the food court at Fish Street and had a gyro ($8) from a Greek place that was next to a fish and chips place. The food is pretty good. I also had roasted chestnuts ($4) later for a snack. There is a tea room with all the trappings, but the tea itself is American. Bring some cash if you plan to buy food. You can bring your own food and drinks if you want.
If you have a boy in your group, you might be approached by a gentleman in costume looking for young workers for his factory. Depending on who you run into, the employment offer could include bread and water and a few shillings, or from a more enlightened employer (Charles and Ned Cheeryble from Nicholoas Nickleby), no more than 10 hours of work per day, two good hot meals per day including meat pies, and they never beat the workers).
Many of the performers mingle with the crowd. They're quite good and must include a number of professional actors. We spotted Scrooge on his journey with the Ghost of Christmas Present, Oliver Twist with the Artful Dodger and Fagin, Buffalo Bill near the Explorer's Club, and Charles Dickens in his office, not to mention Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.
The Dickens Fair is a bit spendy at $25 per adult ticket, but you can get print-at-home tickets at a discount and you can find coupons in the San Jose Mercury News Eye section in the print edition (not the online edition), which comes out on Thursdays. You need the original coupon from the newspaper—they won't accept photocopies. Parking costs an additional $10 per car. Bring some small bills if you want to watch the shows. Some performers pass the hat after their performances.
This is a nice event for families who enjoy theater and have the budget for it, but could be challenging if you have children younger than six years of age. There's a fairy house craft activity that appealed to a lot of young girls, which costs around $30. Depending on the child, I would estimate that would last from 45 minutes to 2 hours. I didn't see much else that was specifically for children, but many of the shows like the jugglers appeal to all ages.