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The British Are Coming. No Wait, They're Here.

Will a very Dickens Christmas get this city-goes-country girl in the holiday spirit?
Monday Dec 25, 2006.     By Jennifer Wennig
Centerstage Chicago Nightlife City Guide Arts

Jennifer and the queen.
A few days into The Twelve Days of Christmas, I wasn't exactly feeling that ubiquitous "holiday spirit."

I'd done all that one does in prepping for Santa's arrival. Mingled at parties. Drank so much champagne, and a few vodka tonics, that when falling asleep visions of sugar plums danced in, or maybe on, my head.

We'd made our traditional trek into the woods to chop down our tree, though our tree lighting ceremony was delayed when John broke the stand. I told him he was forcing it, but you know how men are with tools and asking for directions. I let him huff and puff and trotted to the kitchen for another cookie as the holiday stylings of Il Divo, Josh Groban and Sarah McLachlan rocked our living room. (Bah humbug to the Groban bashers.) The poor tree sat in a bucket of water for the next four days.

But after a flurry of online present purchases, baking, attempts at crafting homemade gifts, putting reindeer antlers on the dogs and acting like I was really into the Peanuts Christmas special still didn't jingle my bells, I went searching for reinforcement.

Google and you shall find. For 33 years, the Village of Holly, Mich. has hosted the Dickens Olde Fashioned Christmas Festival. Holly, Holly, Mich. Are they kidding? This was it. This would light my yuletide fire.

On a pleasantly cool and sunny Saturday morning, I eagerly anticipated my arrival in 1843 England. As my eyes fell upon sweet ponies tethered to form a live merry-go-round, the script of my day seemed to quickly change from Charles Dickens' Victorian tales to Chevy Chase's Christmas Vacation.

After being assured by John that they probably lived on pastoral farmland and only worked on special occasions, we turned down South Saginaw Street, the heart of downtown Holly. Storefront cafes and antique stores were buzzing. A huge tree decorated with dark crimson and gold bows seemed to loom over the holiday revelers, including children, teens, men and women dressed in period outfits. There was caroling and, in the distance, a horse-drawn carriage.

It was official: 1800s England was vibrant.

Reverently, I greeted the fur-clad Queen Victoria (PETA? Not in the 1800s). A young man who I soon learned was her minion shadowed her. "They're quite lovely to have around," she offered with a haughty laugh. She was quite a presence in her jewels and floor-length gown. I wished we'd had a drink together. She'd surely dish on the Royals with me.

I noticed two teenage girls who weren't sporting any of the latest fashion trends. Unless soot-looking smudges count, makeup was absent. They didn't appear disgruntled and weren't talking on a cell or listening to an iPod. Alien teens?

I introduced myself and was tickled when their answers came wrapped in English accents. Thomasina was a chimney sweep and Gwenie a devilish pick-pocketer. With a nod in his direction, I encouraged Gwenie to take a pass at John's wallet. Breaking character for a moment, she giggled and said, "I don't really do that."

I took in a performance by my gals, then moved on. Chatted up the town crier. Tried fried cheesecake and a hot cocoa smoothie (not authentic to the period). Bought the most delicious kettle corn, the quintessential combo of sweet and salty.

As crowded as the streets of Holly were, not once was I bumped or pushed without an "excuse me" or "I'm sorry." When entering shops, I was greeted warmly without that annoying expectation of purchase. Strangers on the street smiled with ease at one another. People participated in silly contests like Haul-A-Maid as their neighbors cheered.

The spirit of this season is alive and well, and I can only hope that the Holly of 2006 is as joyful as the one I found in 1843. And me, well I've been as gleeful as I can be...especially when I think about auditioning for the role of Queen Victoria next year.

Traffic Jammed: To eat and drink English style, head to one of three Elephant & Castle Pubs. With more than 100 beers and an extensive list of Scotch whiskeys, you'll be muttering "buggah" in no time. If you're looking to capture the true spirit of the season now or any time during the year, check out the plethora of volunteer offerings at chicagocares.org.

 

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