If the ghosts of Christmases past were to go on vacation, there’s a strong chance you’d find them lounging on the beach in Galveston. No other city in the state—or the country, for that matter—is as eager to revive bygone days as this port town. Especially in December, during the annual Dickens on the Strand festival, for which ten blocks of the historic district are transformed into a scene straight out of the English novelist’s A Christmas Carol. Thousands fill the lamp-lit streets dressed in Victorian garb (women in elaborate bonnets and hoop skirts, men in brocade tailcoats and top hats) to partake in amusements (is that a dulcimer I hear?) and nibble on delicacies with a nineteenth-century twist (plum pudding for everyone!).
Since its inception 34 years ago, Dickens on the Strand has become more than a mere tourist attraction: In fact, it may just be the most successful ad campaign Galveston has ever run. To understand its regional significance, you must go back to the turn of the century. The bustling trading port was dotted with opulent mansions and considered to be the financial and cultural capital of the state. But the brutal hurricane of 1900, which nearly wiped the Island off the map (it’s still the most devastating in American history), destroyed the land and the city’s promising future. By 1974 the Strand—once “the Wall Street of the Southwest”—lay in disrepair. So in an effort to raise funds and awareness for the crumbling district, a group of citizens hosted a potluck dinner in a few of the old Victorian buildings. The entertainment for the evening? Costumed readings of that ubiquitous holiday tale. Visitors have been flocking to share in the goodwill and wassail ever since.
Galveston doesn’t, of course, have any claim to Dickens (although the Strand was named after a street in London), but that’s never put a damper on the party. A mourning Queen Victoria (played by local Anne Boyd for the past fifteen years) reigns over the festivities, knighting gentlemen in the crowds and leading the parades. Her loyal subjects—who come dressed as Beefeaters, pickpockets, and urchins—can take candlelit tours of the Menard House (the oldest in Galveston) and the Bishop’s Palace or sip cordials at the holiday ball. Even Dickens’s descendants attend. Great-great-grandson Henry Dickens Hawksley will be representing the family this year, signing his ancestor’s books at the English country breakfast and the dinner feast (held at Ashton Villa Ballroom and Garten Verein, respectively). Hawksley, an expert on Dickens’s life, will also be stopping by “Treasures From the Charles Dickens Museum,” the first U.S. exhibit of some of the author’s possessions, including his only surviving clothing, his writing box with dip pen, and even his wooden lemon squeezer (!).
Dickens on the Strand is exactly the sort of escapist holiday overload that you imagine it to be. With the aroma of hot roasted chestnuts in your nose and the sweet chiming of handbells in your ears, you’ll easily slip into a simpler time—or at least feel as if you’ve stepped onto an elaborate Hollywood set. It’s only fitting that a city that’s seen the worst of times pays homage to its collective history by reliving the best of times. Dec 1 & 2 (plus special events Nov 30). Along the Strand, 877-772-5425, dickensonthestrand.org