"Oh, my God -- they're going to fight each other."
My wife was pointing to the main fencing floor at the Corinthian Rose Sporting Club where our 11-year-old girls were aiming foils at each other's chests. It was a moment they've probably dreamed of most of their lives. Never mind all the protective gear and face masks: They wanted a piece of each other.
Meanwhile, our 5-year-old was giving the matronly looking fencing instructor as much swinging steel as she's probably ever had from a child with only 30 minutes of fencing instruction behind her.
If this is what children in 19th-century London did for fun, my kids want to live in 19th-century London.
Old London has landed in Daly City -- at the Cow Palace, to be exact, where the 35th annual Great Dickens Christmas Fair will take place every weekend through Dec. 22. The place is laid out like streets in the days of Charles Dickens. The actors who work at the festival and attendees wear period clothes, drink large mugs of ale, speak in English accents (they mostly try, anyway), and indulge in dancing and singing of songs that would stun the politically correct should they escape onto the nearby streets of San Francisco (the 3 Cripples Pub seems very popular).
Running into Oliver Twist or the Ghost of Christmas Future roaming the streets wasn't uncommon. Neither were sudden outbursts of scenes from Dickens' stories, on scattered stages around the venue -- sometimes in the middle of the "street," where parades frequently broke out and constables roamed, twirling their billy clubs. At least six theaters and 700 characters from Dickens' books were on the premises.
It had been five years since I had attended. I didn't take children that time, so I was wondering how my kids would like it. Walking to the car, they planned their outfits for next year, so I guess they liked it.
Actually, they loved it.
As mentioned before, they got to fence, they got pulled into group dances, they saw puppet shows (from some of the most frightening-looking puppets on the planet, appropriately known as the "Dangerous Puppets"). They tried on period masks that were more art than costume. We watched acts such as the wonderful folk band Rats in the Haggis and Paddy West Sings Songs of the Seven Seas at the very convincing Mad Sal's Dockside Ale House. (Mad Sal wasn't in the immediate vicinity, which is good, since she almost attacked me for not having an ale last time I was there.)
My kids also spent a disproportionate time in a shop that sells what I assumed was 19th-century-style handmade soap. We told them they could each have something from the many old-styled shops, including magic puzzle boxes, old books, jewelry and games. All of that wonderful English finery -- and they came home with one bar of soap each.
Mine weren't the only kids loving the fair. A good portion of the attendees were teenagers and younger, many of them dressed in old English attire, be it the top hats and tails of the ruling classes or the knickers and caps of street urchins (some even scuffed dirt on their faces). It was also a good place to see Steampunkers and their looks from (the real or imagined) 19th-century Industrial Revolution; more often than not, one could hear their outfits clanging before actually seeing them.
But don't worry about not showing up in costume. If you suddenly want to get into the spirit of things, more than enough stores are able to accommodate you. Hats, topcoats, dresses wider than my car, jewelry, corsets -- all were available, with shop owners frequently in character.
It's not just London -- it's London of 1865 during Christmas, which gives the whole place an extra layer of magic. Even better: They didn't have iPods or iPhones in 1865, so my kids stayed off their electronic devices for more than four hours. That has to qualify as a Christmas miracle.
IF YOU GO
The Great Dickens Christmas Fair: Open weekends, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., through Dec. 22. On Dec. 7-8, general admission (ages 13 and up) is $25. On Dec. 14-15 and Dec. 21-22, general admission is $30. Admission is $12 for kids ages 5-12; younger children get in free. Parking is $10. Cow Palace, 2600 Geneva Ave., Daly City. www.dickensfair.com
Parents need to know: Lots of walking is involved. And with so many people in one hall, it tends to get warm. Bring water and dress in layers that can be taken off. It can be noisy as well, especially with all the town criers, so it's important that your children aren't overly sensitive to noise.
Nearby eats: There aren't a lot of family restaurants in the vicinity and, since it's a self-contained event that requires at least three to four hours to get the experience, you'll probably end up eating inside. Try the meat pies at the Green Man Parlour. Otherwise, there are plenty of places to get British food (fish and chips, roast beef, turkey, bangers, etc), as well as Greek food and pasta. There's also a large tea parlor and plenty of places for ale and Irish coffee. Try Mad Sal's, which is all the way in the back.
-- Tony Hicks