Charles Dickens never stepped foot in Galveston. When the Victorian writer spent several months venturing across the U.S. and Canada to write his travelogue American Notes in 1842, he mainly focused on cities along the East Coast—fledgling settlements like a six-year-old port city in Texas didn’t make the cut.
Yet improbably, Dickens is to thank for one of the most beloved and bizarre holiday traditions in Texas: Dickens on the Strand. The annual gathering, by its own estimation, is “a one-of-a-kind holiday destination filled with the sights and sounds of Charles Dickens’s work.” The festival, which celebrated 45 years in 2018, was originally founded to celebrate Galveston’s Victorian architecture and ultimately played a significant role in cementing the Strand District as a National Historic Landmark.
In its forty-fifth year—and, fittingly, the 175th anniversary of the publication of A Christmas Carol—Dickens on the Strand is a rare crossover of wholesome family fun and, in the parlance of Dickens’s time, ale-fueled debauchery. My family members have been Galveston devotees since long before I was born, and yet my dad, who spent summers as a lifeguard on the city’s beaches, had never made it to Dickens on the Strand before this holiday season. Neither had I, nor my Missouri-transplant husband (my stepmom was the only one of us who had any prior experience with the festival). This year, we decided to try out a new kind of family holiday tradition.
Our adventure began on Friday evening with a soft opening of the festivities to come. Food vendors were already set up for the official two-day event, peddling unconventional Dickensian fare such as gyros and corn dogs. We wandered to a tent where a quartet performed an extended rendition of the sea shanty “Drunken Sailor,” peppering modern Texas updates like “make him the captain of an Exxon tanker” into the verses. We meandered to the Strand proper, the ten-block stretch of souvenir shops cum drinking establishments. We ordered a round of beers from the window of a shop and settled in at a table on the raised sidewalk to strike up conversation with more experienced Dickens on the Strand attendees. We needed to know what to expect.
“You’ve never been to Dickens on the Strand?” Wendy Weedman, a shocked Galveston local, asked. “Gaaaaaaaaaw! I’ve been here through every hurricane, every Dickens, every Mardi Gras.” Her comparison to a natural disaster and a celebration of les bons temps seemed incongruous, but Weedman’s grouping of three would turn out to be surprisingly apropos.
On Saturday, the first full day, we paid our $15 admission (there is a discount for people in costume, as many attendees were) and headed to . . . Murphy’s Pub, a dim, smoke-filled Irish bar, to watch at least the first part of the University of Texas–Oklahoma University football game. The streets were still quiet when we got there at 11 a.m.—plus, y’all, this was for the playoffs. We needed to at least check in.
To our surprise, the pub offered the perfect introduction to Dickens on the Strand. Women in hoop skirts and men in top hats cheered alongside burnt orange–clad fans. “I’m currently eighteen inches around,” a woman in a corset said. “My organs are all dead.” (Later, I watched her male companion, decked in coattails, retrieve a sunken necklace from the crevices of her gravity-defying bosom.) Just before we abandoned the flailing Longhorns, a trio of bagpipers came into Murphy’s to play a rousing rendition of the UT fight song, “The Eyes of Texas.” The Longhorns scored a touchdown shortly after, which this UT grad hopefully attributed to the musical encouragement, but they ultimately fell to the Sooners 39–27.
We emerged, squinting, from the dim establishment into the bright day. Throngs of people dressed in Dickens garb were guzzling beer and parading their finery, so our first order of business was the costume contest. The pageant’s fiercest competition, undeniably, was in the family category. After several contestants promenaded past, the smallest of entrants shown off from within a lace-decked baby carriage, the clear winners emerged. This was no first-timer’s luck—decked in intricate outfits of crinoline and dapper tails and hats, the family members were festival veterans.
Paige Spenrath from Tomball has been coming to Dickens on the Strand her entire life. Her great-grandmother attended the Dickens in its first year, in 1974, and dressed up every year. Now her aunt Melissa Williams makes all of the outfits, tailoring each to fit the personality of the entrant. Williams’s daughter, Morgan Flowers, competed in the competition for the first time when she was six years old. “It started with my grandmother making costumes for my cousin and me,” Williams said. “It’s passed down the generations, so it’s now my children and my niece.”
Each of the six entrants’ outfits were tailored to their specific personality. Flowers, a devotee of the late musical genius Prince, was decked in purple and gold. “We get better every year,” Flowers said, “but this year was a big success for us as we learn and adapt to what usually wins.”
From there, we wandered through the attractions. At the Mrs. Dickens performance, an actress interpreted the musings of Charles Dickens’s wife, Catherine. Albert’s Whimsical Whisker Revue offered a competition featuring hirsute entrants, including members of the Austin Facial Hair Club, who had been rooting for the Longhorns earlier in the day. Revelers also wandered past Apple Cider and Blonde, a pair of penned alpacas who had no clear connection to Dickens but were adorable nonetheless.
The Dickensian theme of the event was reinforced by the architecture of the Strand and the programming, but costumed and noncostumed revelers alike seemed attracted mostly to the booze and general camaraderie. As high school ensemble choirs in Victorian garb performed Christmas carols at various popup locations along the stretch, passersby queued for Miller Lites and other toasts to the season.
It’s unclear how Dickens would have fit into the scene of excessive beer guzzling (and, inexplicably, people dressed in pirate gear). But as my family eyed the spectacle, with my stepmom and I sporting our newly purchased fascinators, it was a joyful welcome into the season of holiday festivity. Tarot card readings and donning fuzzy tails may not have much to do with the Dickens canon, but it felt distinctly at home in Galveston.