The Great Dickens Christmas Fair has been hailed as one of San Francisco’s premier annual events. Most patrons probably do not realize that its unique brand of magic has its roots in 1960s Los Angeles with an entirely different type of fair. In 1963 Ron and Phyllis Patterson created the concept of Renaissance Faires, and produced the ﬁrst such fairs in America. Grateful for the success of their early fairs, the Pattersons decided in the winter of 1968 to host a special holiday party at their home in the Hollywood Hills.
For this party, they departed from the Renaissance theme of their fairs and sought inspiration for costuming, food, decorations, and games in late 19th-century history and the novels of Charles Dickens. The Pattersons and their guests so enjoyed themselves it was suggested that the event be held every year and, perhaps on a larger scale.
Meanwhile, the Pattersons had expanded the production of their Renaissance Faires to Northern California’s Marin County. In nearby San Francisco, the old brick warehouses along Fisherman’s Wharf, reminiscent of the covered markets of Victorian London, provided inspiration to create a Victorian Christmas party on a truly grand scale. What began as a house party was reimagined as a sizable indoor fair open to the public. Soon plans were underway to launch The Great Dickens Christmas Fair and Pickwick Comic Annual (as it was originally called).
The ﬁrst Dickens Fair opened for three weekends in December of 1970 at the Anchor Works, a vintage warehouse adjacent to San Francisco’s waterside Embarcadero district.
One newspaper account at the time described the Fair experience as similar to entering a movie set or ﬁnding oneself cast in a pageant. The Fair was already establishing its tradition of authentic costuming, interactive entertainment, and atmospheric sets.
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.
With the involvement of three generations of the founding Patterson family, and a sizable extended family of performers, artists and patrons, the Great Dickens Christmas Fair has evolved over the course of nearly five decades. It has become one of the San Francisco Bay Area’s premier annual events—the only celebration of its kind in the world!