Kage Baker loved doing the Dickens Christmas Fair. It was her perfect Christmas, and it went on for 5 weekends, one of them a 3-day: 11 glorious, over-the-top days of Victorian Christmas, in all its tinselled, ornamented, be-hollied and stained glass glory. She coined the phrase “Extreme Christmas” to describe the madness, and it now seems to have permeated every level of the Dickens Fair community.
I’ve even seen it used in official announcements from the Front Office. But then, even the highest level staff of Dickens Fair gets out there with hammers and screw guns and corsets and top hats, to put it all together. It takes several weeks of manic building and decorating on the part of its various crews, vendors and performers to reach the peak of perfection that is Extreme Christmas. The guy who handles plumbing may be selling hot chestnuts later in the run; the gentleman who installed the 10-foot-long sign, 8 feet in the air over my front door, may be seen swilling champagne in flawless evening dress when we’re open.
Everybody does at least 2 jobs. Some vendors who sell hamburgers and Coke to the participants during Rehearsals will later be dispensing elegant chocolates, delicate tea and cakes, exotic foods and drink from every corner of the British Empire. (And there won’t be a burger or a soft drink to be found.) Some performers cart their stages to the Cow Palace from backyards and storage lockers, and build them over 3 insane weekends.
My group, the staff and tenants of the Green Man Inn, are among those who build their own set. My extraordinary cast has been working on it for two weeks – this was the first time I’ve made it up to “help”. Mostly what I did this weekend was sit and point, making decisions on what went where on the walls. I could do that because my folks had assembled the shell of the Inn already – they constructed its walls and put them together like an immense jigsaw puzzle. They painted it all a-fresh, and fetched in all the massive furniture, plumbing, and boxes full of glasses, tableware, silver, linens, carpets, lace drapes, green garland and red ribbons and palms in brass pots and freaking peacock feathers needed to transform what is basically a large green cracker box into a Victorian Parlour with a discreet bar on one end.
There are three layers of decoration just on the tops of the walls! Green garlands studded with big red-and-gold bows run along the tops – then the crown molding goes up, ditto – and then the patterned wall paper strip runs below them. Above … well, it’s thin air to the rafters of the Cow Palace to the uninitiated, but actually there are 6 more floors of assorted rooms for rent, where dwell the Pickwick Club, various musical groups, and God alone knows who else. God and Neassa, that is, Neassa being the one who sat down and figured out who-all was up there … through these layers of imagination descends the glowing chandelier that illuminates the Main Table in front of the Bar.
My nephew Mike and semi-nephew Patrick laid down and fastened in place the Turkey rugs that make the asphalt floor livable; everyone carried and set the tables, settees, chairs, fainting couches and wooden stools and wooden chests that make this reformed cattle shed into a warm and welcoming Public House. That’s why and how I get to sit comfortably in a straight-backed chair and point -put this couch here, move that chaise lounge there, hide the extra folding chairs for Mr. Dickens’ audiences behind the draperies that frame one elegant nook.
The Head Parlour Maid is a decorating fiend – our walls are packed with portraits, mirrors and bric-a-brack; all festooned with peacock feathers where they will accent the frames and lamps to best advantage. We are perfectly overdone, and I suspect my Parlour Maid spends the rest of the year mugging birds … a perpetual fire is laid, crackling and glowing, in the Parlour, with a hearth rug before it and a basket of toys for wandering children waiting under a Christmas Tree made of white goose feathers.
It’s amazing, Dear Readers. It’s Christmas as it existed in Kage Baker’s mind, resurrected and built anew by folks who actually knew her. No wonder they’re a little peculiar. No wonder she got headaches.
Anyway, Dear Readers, there have I been for the past 3 days. I came home well after sunset each night and managed to have a civil dinner with my generous hosts, the semi-divine Skolds, before falling into bed. Yesterday Mike and I set off before the frost was quite off the Cruiser (it gets cold in Santa Rosa) and drove down I-5 back to a grey, mild Los Angeles. Kimberly made sure we had all our luggage and most of our wits, fed us and more or less poured us back into bed. I’m exhausted and exalted, too, by the beautiful miracle performed in the Cow Palace this past weekend – I have two more days to get ready for the next one, and Opening Day!
Extreme Christmas is coming.