Chestertown’s “Dickens of a Christmas,” Dec. 6 to 8, turned downtown into a Victorian fantasy for 36 hours. A project of Main Street Chestertown, with support from a host of community and national organizations, the festive weekend was the third annual – and it drew a crowd of locals as well as a large number of out-of-town visitors. There was no entrance fee to join the fun and most events were free.
Things kicked off Friday night, which also happened to be First Friday, with many downtown shops open late hours and special events at galleries and other venues, including art exhibits at RiverArts and at The. The Kent School Carolers provided seasonal music, and there were activities for the young at Kaleidoscope on Cannon Street, at Sultana Education Center, and at Kidspot next to RiverArts. Local husband and wife/illustrator and author team Robbi Behr and Matthew Swanson were at the BookPlate, promoting the latest opus of their popular The Real McCoy series of illustrated books for children.
One of the most popular activities, the carriage rides, began on Friday evening, with passengers boarding three horse-drawn carriages at the corner of Cross and Cannon and taking a scenic ride through downtown. Meanwhile, on the 300 block of High Street, attendees were treated to music by organ grinder Terry Bender and two sets of upbeat music by The America Rogues, a Celtic band with pipes, fiddle, and drums. The American Rogues also visited Garnet Elementary School for a concert in the gym earlier in the day. In the evening, fire pits provided warmth for toasting marshmallows, and a champion ice carver created a Dickens character out of blocks of ice while everyone watched.
Saturday, the action shifted to the 200 block of High Street, with a full day of events in addition to the Farmers Market and KidSpot’s weekly activities. A holiday house tour, conducted by docents from the Historical Society, gave visitors a look inside eight historic homes. A day-long street theater featured Queen Victoria (ably impersonated by Jen Friedman), stilt walkers, a puppet theater, “magic minstrel” Jerry Brown, and even a flea circus.
All through the weekend, the roaming character actors in Victorian garb provided typical Christmas and winter entertainment. There were the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future as well as the Ghost of Jacob Marley, all from Charles Dickens’ famous story “A Christmas Carol.” Marley (played by Paul Heckles), complete with clanking chains, liked to sneak up behind people and scare them – then take a selfie with them. Queen Victoria was much too dignified for such shenanigans but she always graciously consented to have a photo taken with any of her admiring subjects. And the magician at The Dickens Bank had a live monkey!
You could visit Santa in Fountain Park and the Elves would take your picture with the Jolly Old Elf himself. Or you could decorate a tree ornament at RiverArts which also had a wonderful exhibit and sale of arts and crafts by RiverArts members, any of which would make a wonderful gift.
Large tents hosted a number of food vendors and musical performances throughout the day. Called “London Row,” the merchants’ tents had a wonderful selection of crafts, clothing, and books — most with a connection to Victorian England. There were many food vendors including EverGrain Bread, Lockbriar Farm, The Pearl from Rock Hall, and Luisa’s Cucina Italiana, among others.
At noon at the BookPlate, former Washington Post book editor and Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Michael Dirda gave a well-attended talk entitled “The Classic English Ghost Story.” Later in the afternoon, the BookPlate hosted a panel with Dickens scholars Katherine Charles and Michelle Allen-Emerson on “The Making of ‘A Christmas Carol’ and Why We Still Read It’. And not to overlook an American hero of the same era, Sumner Hall hosted Phil Darius Walpole in a one-man show based on the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass. Although free, this event required reservations. After the first two of Walpole’s scheduled appearances were completely reserved well in advance, a third performance was added – and it too filled the hall.
Another popular event was the Saturday Afternoon Tea at the Hynson Ringold House on the waterfront, just a short walk from downtown Chestertown. Built in 1743, the brick colonial mansion is now the home of the president of Washington College. Back in the day, George Washington, as well as other well-known dignitaries, actually dined and slept there! This was another ticketed event with seatings at 1:00 and 3:00 pm. Guests enjoyed a house tour and a sumptuous Victorian Afternoon Tea with a menu of sweet and savory treats, all to the strains of music from the era.
Saturday evening, bonfires were lit at the foot of High Street, again attracting a good crowd to enjoy beer, marshmallows, and entertainment. The American Rogues made another appearance, along with the exciting American Pyroxotic Fire Dancers and story-telling by Jake Swane. And carriage rides continued. You could hear the clop-clop of the horses’ hooves as they trotted by on their rounds.
Sunday’s activities began with the “Run Like the Dickens” 5K run/walk race. The Bank at 211 High St. offered a Victorian fashion show – a sort of “reverse strip tease” featuring Victorian undergarments and gowns then showing the final, complete outfit. Period fashion expert Merilee Orr presided. Champagne and a light brunch fare completed the experience.
For a town that for many years thought of itself primarily in terms of its Colonial history, it looks as if a move into the Victorian era has paid genuine dividends in delighting both residents and tourists during the Christmas season.
A Dickens of a Christmas was definitely a community project with lots of hard work and many, many volunteers. This year’s chair was Kathleen King with Mary Balenti-Bloom and Scott Gornall as volunteer coordinators. Sam Arrow was in charge of street decorations — a big job! Kristin Hickman handled window decorations. Barbara Slocum was in charge of the Main Street Mercantile booth and she was the graphics designer for the Dickens’ Christmas merchandise including the bag and mug designs. These are just a few of the volunteers who made the festival run smoothly. Founded and sponsored by Mainstreet Chestertown, the festival’s “Organizer-in-Chief” for all three years has been Kay McIntosh. Without her, it never would have happened. Kudos to all involved for a grand weekend.