You had better be careful if you plan to theme your town’s annual Christmas celebration after a classic of Victorian literature. Settle on Stoker’s Dracula, Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, or Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and your little holiday shindig is going to start heads scratching and little else. Choose Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, however, and you’ll be well on your way to creating some memorable Yuletide festivities. This is what the town of Garrison, ND did, and look where it has gotten them today.
The tradition began 25 years ago when a lady named Pat Koenig, a longtime Dickens fan, decided to put on a production of A Christmas Carol in her town as a way of paying tribute to her favorite author. The play was a hit, and everyone returned on the following years to bring the great tale of ghosts, redemption, and a prize turkey to life. More and more auxiliary festivities soon attached themselves to the annual production, and before long Garrison’s annual Dickens Festival was in full swing.
“It’s wonderful to see a small North Dakotan town turn into a quaint Victorian village every year,” said McKaila Matteson, director of the Garrison convention and visitors’ bureau. “Even though being outdoors this time of year isn’t everyone’s favorite thing to do, Garrison’s warmth and hospitality has made our Dickens Festival absolutely necessary for some of our guests to officially start their holiday seasons.”
Garrison’s more enthusiastic ambassadors to the holiday spirit don top hats, muffles, and ostentatious lacy hats to help absorb their town’s guests into the Victorian theme. Street vendors turn Main Street into a steamy bazaar with turkey legs, buffalo Swedish meatballs, and hot desserts. Children decorate their own top hats, fruit cakes are tossed, high tea is observed, and live bands play. Horse drawn carriages clip and clop briskly down frozen roads, but the real star attraction of the festival’s transportation scene is the Queen Elizabus, an authentic London double-decker that gives guests rides and views around town.
The festivities cap off in the evening with the Lighted Parade, a fleet of floats themed after gingerbread, Santa’s workshop, that other great grouch the Grinch, and more Christmas icons followed by the Elizabus herself. This all leads to the nightly production of A Christmas Carol.
The play has perhaps had its teeth filed down a little in recent decades owing to its constant adaptation for television. The Flintstones, The Six Million Dollar Man, Xena: Warrior Princess, and even Beavis & Butt-Head have all taken their cracks at portraying the story in their fashions. Trust me when I tell you, however, that seeing real people who only treasure the play for its timeless message of hope and charity perform it is the surest way to feel as though you are seeing it for the first time. Garrison’s production is a pure labor of love.
“The best part about living in Garrison is having so many people from all over the Midwest come to celebrate the Dickens Festival together in our town,” said McKaila. “We’ve been at this for so long that we have seen our very first guests now come with their baby grandchildren. What more could a small community like ours hope for than to become a family tradition?”
Visit dickensfestival.com to learn more about the celebration.
By David Scheller