It will be the best of times, with none of the worst of times, when the streets of Historic Downtown Fayetteville transform into Victorian England, filled with the sights, sounds and scents of Christmas during the annual A Dickens Holiday on Friday, Nov. 27 from 1 to 9 p.m.
"This will be the 10th year we've had A Dickens Holiday in Downtown Fayetteville," said Mary Kinney, marketing manager of the Arts Council of Fayetteville/Cumberland County, "and the 10th year that it has been put on by The Arts Council."
Produced by the Arts Council of Fayetteville/Cumberland County with the Downtown Alliance, A Dickens Holiday is a unique and simpler alternative to starting the holiday season than the chaos of Black Friday at malls and superstores.
"It's an elegant and gentle way to begin the holiday season," said Hank Parfitt, founder and past president of the Downtown Alliance, and chairman of A Dickens Holiday committee. "It's a collaborative endeavor, and its success is a testament to the working relationship of the Arts Council and the Downtown Alliance."
The Arts Council expects around 10,000 or more people to attend this year's celebration. Parking is plentiful and will be free in city lots; visitors may also park in private lots, which will still require payment.
"The event is free," Kinney said, "but there are certainly opportunities to do other things that would cost a little bit of money. People are welcome to buy hot cider and gingerbread at vendor stalls along Hay Street, have photographs with Father Christmas in front of the Arts Council Building and take our carriage rides."
The horse-drawn carriage rides along Hay Street, available from noon to 9 p.m., are a popular activity and sell out quickly, usually by 3 or 3:30 p.m., explained Parfitt. Visitors may choose to ride like royalty in Queen Victoria's carriage, which costs $15 per person. Tickets may be purchased at, and rides depart from, the Fayetteville Area Transportation Museum on Ray Avenue and include free refreshments. Private carriage rides for two can be reserved for $50. Advance ticket purchases are recommended for Victoria's carriage rides and are available by calling 678-8899. While waiting for their carriage to arrive, visitors will want to be sure and view the Christmas train exhibit presented by model railroaders.
For those who prefer a big group experience, Ye Olde Hitch Wagon leaves from the Downtown Alliance on Hay Street, also from noon to 9 p.m. Tickets are $10 dollars for adults and $5 for children under 12.
A carriage ride provides the perfect vantage point to take in an overview of the many activities happening throughout the downtown area, including strolling artists performing from 1 to 8:30 p.m. One might catch a glimpse of Marley or Scrooge or Tiny Tim among the crowd. John Tudor, an award-winning magician, will entertain and amaze, and the sounds of the Woodwind Ensemble, Chenaniah Show Choir, Coventry Carolers, Salvation Army Band, Highland Brass Band, Little String Trio, River Valley Players and Oakwood Waits will fill the air with music of the season.
"Oakwood Waits is an a cappella ensemble that has twice been invited to sing at the White House. ‘Waits' from the early English refers to street musicians, particularly singers," Kinney said.
In addition to serenading audiences along the brick-lined streets of downtown, the musical groups will take to the stages of the Arts Council Building and The Metropolitan Room on Green Street throughout the day and evening. The Metropolitan Room will also present Tuba Christmas, a free all-tuba-and-euphonium concert hosted by Hay Street United Methodist Church, and a sneak preview of Gilbert Theater's A Christmas Carol, which opens across the street at 8 p.m. Tickets for that performance are $10.
And those who attend A Dickens Holiday won't miss out on the first official day of holiday shopping.
"Certainly with the crowds of people, we create a unique shopping opportunity," Kinney said. "In addition to the merchants who are here every day, we also bring in vendors who are artisans and crafters. So on the sidewalks we have people who are selling their handmade wares. It's definitely a shopping experience, and folks can get their Christmas shopping done early."
Many other activities will take place at venues throughout the downtown area. At Fascinate-U Children's Museum from 1 to 7 p.m., participants can create their own Victorian Christmas ornament to give, to keep or to place on the community Christmas tree. Artists at Cape Fear Studios will demonstrate their skills and offer original hand-crafted items for sale from 1 to 9 p.m. during the Annual Members Holiday Show and the Market House will feature a Dickens historic exhibit with educational panels and artifacts detailing the Victorian era in Fayetteville and England. Of course, tiny tots and anyone who believes will want to preserve the magic of the day by having their picture taken with Father Christmas in front of an authentic Victorian sleigh at the Arts Council Building from 1-5:30 p.m. and from 6-8:30 p.m. for $5 per print.
Visitors are also encouraged to immerse themselves in the life and times of Dickens by dressing up in their Victorian finery and participating in the Dickens Costume Contest and Fireside Chat with Charles Dickens from 6:30 to 8 p.m. at The Metropolitan Room. Admission to the contest is free, and those who wish to enter the contest may register for $10 at 222 Hay Street for a chance to win $500 in cash prizes.
"We have lots and lots to do!" Parfitt said.
New to this year's celebration is the Downtown Alliance's very first H&H Homes Professional Gingerbread House Competition at the Rainbow Room from 1 to 9 p.m.
"In a nutshell," said Parfitt, "it's professional chefs literally racing against the clock in order to design a gingerbread house that will win the $500 top prize. They can build the structure ahead of time, but they start decorating at 1, and they have to be done by no later than 6.
"We worked with Chef Richard Kugelmann, director of the culinary arts program at FTCC and chairman of the competition committee. He agreed to help put this contest together, and his students are going to be involved. He's really excited about it because the event is good for the community. We're planning on it becoming an annual event. We have partnered with H& H Homes, a major sponsor of this event, and they want to keep doing this."
Greg West of H&H Homes explained that the competition came about quickly.
"We thought it would be cute and fun, something that is a natural fit with a homebuilding company," said West, "and it supports the community."
While the competitors must meet certain stipulations with respect to materials used -- all decorations must be edible -- and size of the gingerbread houses, the design rules are fairly relaxed.
"The houses have to have a North Carolina theme. So it could be a beach house, it could be a part of the Biltmore House, or it could be a country church somewhere," Parfitt said.
The entrants in this year's competition at publication time are Huske Hardware House Restaurant & Brewery, Cape Fear Valley Health System, Fayetteville Technical Community College's Future Culinarians of America and Sandhills Community College's Baking & Pastry Arts Club. An independent panel of board-certified chefs will judge the architectural confections from 6-7 p.m., and the visitors of A Dickens Holiday will be able to vote with $1 contributions for the People's Choice award to help raise money for the event.
"As you walk by, you put a dollar bill in the ballot box of the one that's your favorite, so that's going to be a lot of fun," said Parfitt. "They will be decorating live, and you can walk in the Rainbow Room and walk by their tables and see how they're doing and encourage them. We hope to have a live deejay narrating the event as we go. We'll actually announce the winners at 7 or 7:30, but people can still go by and see the two-foot trophy and vote for People's Choice until about 8:45. We think that this could become really, really big, and it will be loads of fun."
At 5 p.m., visitors will gather at the Arts Council Building at Hay and Maxwell Streets for the Candlelight Procession along Hay Street to the Market Square. Six London Bobbies, complete with authentic uniforms and metropolitan police whistles, will stroll the street in pairs to help clear the street and move people to the safety of the sidewalks and side streets so that Queen Victoria, horses, carriages and participants may safely pass. Anyone who wishes to join the procession should gather by the Arts Council Building and follow, rather than join from the sides.
"It's probably the most spectacular part of the whole day, and people can pick up free candles at the Arts Council Building and from various merchants in Downtown Fayetteville," said Kinney. "We're inviting people to enjoy the food at the 21st Century Food Court, which is on the 300 block next to the Arts Council and away from where the procession will go. They'll be in a good position to see folks who are gathering for the procession. We plan to start the procession at about 5:30 p.m."
"Doug Elwell is going to be on the bagpipes, leading the procession, followed by the Cape Fear Scottish Clan, followed by Queen Victoria in a white carriage accompanied by the Fayetteville Independent Light Infantry (FILI)," said Parfitt.
"Riding with Queen Victoria will be Charles Dickens. They will process the three blocks to the Market House along with everyone with candlelight. Charles Dickens and Tiny Tim will entertain the crowd, and there'll be singing and bells ringing, the tree lighting and the Grand Illumination," Kinney said.
Kinney and Parfitt stress that after the procession, people won't want to leave. "The crowd and the events are shifting and moving in terms of location, but the day is not ending," said Kinney. "The party will move down to The Metropolitan Room for the costume contest and fireside chat."
Visitors are encouraged to stroll about the other activities continuing in the Downtown area until the fireworks display at 8:30 p.m. that will signal the official ending of the holiday, a change in the schedule from previous holidays.
"They really should stick around for the beautiful fireworks," Kinney said.
Indeed, one won't want to miss any of A Dickens Holiday and the chance to sample the customs and delights of a time gone by.
"We want A Dickens Holiday that feels authentic, making you feel like you've really stepped back in time. Whether it's smelling the hot cider and gingerbread or having an encounter with Scrooge himself, to the London Bobbies, you really can take a trip to a different time and place right here in Downtown Fayetteville," Kinney said.
Parfitt agrees wholeheartedly. "You can come downtown and travel in time back to the past and enjoy all these wonderful sights and sounds, enjoy the carriage rides, do a little shopping so that you won't be too far behind and enjoy some of the real unique shops we have down here."
"A Dickens Holiday is a great opportunity for people who have out-of-town guests to have a place to go and something to do that is heartwarming and a lot of fun for the family to create memories," said Kinney.
For more information and a complete schedule of activities and events at A Dickens Holiday, visit the Arts Council's Web site at ww.theartscouncil.com/Dickens_Holiday.html.