Dickens of a Christmas: 30 Year Tradition
Roanoke native Victoria Taylor has charcoal sketches of her daughters that she got from one of the earliest Dickens of a Christmas events still hanging in her home. She recalls sitting in her downtown shop, The Gift Niche, when she heard that local artist Vera Dickerson had joined in on the festivities. “When I found out, I called my husband and said ‘get the girls and bring them down here.’”
Taylor, who has co-owned the business for 30 years along with three of her sorority sisters, has stood behind the glass windows of her shop and witnessed the small doings of Dickens turn into the phenomenon it has become over the past three decades. She may have only witnessed from her corner at Market and Campbell, but she was still able to catch glimpses of Scrooge and Tiny Tim, smell the cider and roasting chestnuts and hear the clank of horses’ hooves as they mixed with the sweet voices bellowing carols. In fact, those sweet sounds often made their way into her shop—in particular, sounds from a Williamsburg quartet that has been performing at Dickens for the past several years. While she was working and customers filled her corner store, the quartet would stop by and ask ‘Is it okay if we pop in and do a tune?’ “People just stop what they are doing to listen,” Taylor said.
According to Tina Workman, Vice President of Events and Operations for Downtown Roanoke, Inc. (DRI), Dickens of a Christmas started as a retail initiative in December of 1982. The event included period costumes, hot chocolate, Christmas music and special deals in the local shops. It was traditionally an event that ran from 10 to 4 on a Saturday and drew a crowd of 400 to 500 people; now, approaching its 30th anniversary, Dickens has jumped to a three night event that last year drew around 35,000 people over its course. Prior to Dickens, the city had other holiday events such as the tree lighting and the Christmas parade. “They needed a little umph,” Workman said, “so they [DRI] decided to package them together.”
Dickens runs the first three Friday nights in December, with the tree lighting on the first night, the parade on the second night and the SPCA pet costume contest on the third night. “Last year there was a goat dressed as Charles Dickens,” she said. Workman, who has been with DRI for 13 years, said the goal is to keep it fresh. While each night has a major event attached to it, there are loads of other spectacles that bring it to life. Theatre students from William Fleming High School bring the work of Charles Dickens to the streets, complete with accents and period costumes. Horse-drawn carriages provide a romantic ride for couples or a thrill for children and chestnuts are literally roasted on an open fire. Then there are ice sculptures, operas, symphonies, dancers, hand bell choirs, live nativity scenes, jugglers and fire eaters, plus Santa’s workshop and a kid’s zone. The list goes on. Of course, each year is a little different. In 2011, the big hit was the fake snow. Kids actually got to sleigh ride on Wall Street. And the best part, according to Workman, is that everything is free except for the carriage rides. This is made possible through volunteers, which has pretty much been the case since conception. Taylor, of The Gift Niche, remembers the late Laban Johnson, former Patrick Henry High drama teacher and host of a local cooking show, volunteering his time. She recalls local chefs from The Hotel Roanoke and Patrick Henry Hotel coming out and doing live ice sculptures and local store owners roasting chestnuts. And, of course, Vera Dickerson, local artist and teacher and co-founder of Roanoke’s The Studio School, sketching with charcoals. The volunteer aspect and community nature stuck. “It’s really nice to have an event where they are calling you to participate,” Workman said. Despite the fact that it’s the largest event she heads, Workman said the participation makes it the easiest to put on. “If you love something, you jump in,” she said.
Workman explained that the entire downtown area embraces the event. Stores and restaurants offer discounts and stay open late and Market Square is packed with vendors. Even businesses off the market bring merchandise down to fill the stalls. “Our goal is to incorporate as many entities as possible.” Entities such as the Taubman Museum of Art on Salem Avenue. Kids can visit the Taubman and make ornaments that are later placed on the giant tree, which is also donated. “It adds to the whole community event when a child can say, ‘Mom, there’s my ornament,” Workman said.
Sumdat Farm Market is one of the many downtown businesses that embraces the season and the event. The business, which features a store with Virginia products and a stand with local produce, stays open late during the holidays. One of its biggest sellers during the holidays is chestnuts. “No matter how many we get, we always sell out,” co-owner Brian Woodford said. He added that their “little hams” are another popular item. “They are small, but so special.”
And, of course, The Gift Niche keeps its doors open late for the event. “Around the holidays we have hand-selected Christmas ornaments. We try to make sure they are unique or are representative of the Roanoke Valley. We hit all price points to make sure there is something for everyone,” Taylor said. She explained that women in their 30s will come in and tell her that their moms use to bring them in to get ornaments when they were younger and now they are bringing their kids to do the same. “Part of this has to do with Dickens. It’s so family-oriented,” she said. “Each week there is something different. It’s one of our more enjoyable times.” In fact, their participation with Dickens goes even deeper. One of Taylor’s partners, Laura Duckworth, was in the first ever commercial to promote Dickens of a Christmas. “It was filmed with them walking down Campbell in Williamsburg attire. I remember that dress she was wearing and the commercial. I wonder if they still have that footage?”
Mark Woods or his crew from Woods Farms in Boones Mill can be found downtown year round selling seasonal produce and plants at his stall just outside of Taylor’s Gift Niche. During Dickens, they are out with Christmas trees, wreaths and garland. Taylor remembers six or seven years ago, Woods selling Christmas trees at Dickens in shorts due to 80 degree temperatures. Mr. Kettle Korn, also known as Wayne Parks of Smith Mountain Lake, recalls the other extreme. “It goes on no matter what the weather. I’ve been here at three below. The only night it’s been closed since I’ve been here was when the mayor closed down the whole town for a foot of snow.” Parks has been selling the sweet and salty snack on the market for 11 years, and has set up at Dickens for 10. One of the best parts for him is that he gets to see the same families year after year. “It’s awesome. Very family-oriented. It really brings the atmosphere of Dickens down here,” he said. “A lot of people in the town volunteer to decorate the market. They bring in truckloads of pine needle wreaths and decorate all the stalls with wreaths and lights.”
Workman explained that for at the past 15 years they “green the market” on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving. The DRI staff, farmers, and others from the community decorate the stalls and the light poles. “We move downtown into the holiday season. We make it festive. We kick it off,” she said.
Roanoke City Economic Development Spet Lisa Soltis feels that Dickens is a huge draw for the region and does provide an economic boost. “Even if people don’t purchase right then, it plants a seed to go back,” she said. Soltis, a Roanoke native, took her daughters to Dickens of a Christmas when they were younger. She explained that her girls loved seeing the people dressed up because they resembled some of the decorations they had at home. While she looks fondly on the time spent with her children, she said, “There was nothing like that when I was growing up.” Soltis, however, does remember some of the Roanoke traditions from the 1960s that paint her childhood memories. One of the biggest—“the real Santa” at the old Miller & Rhoads department store located on Campbell Avenue. She also remembers the store’s toy department. In fact, she recalls borrowing a doll from the third floor to use for one of her pictures with Santa. Her father went back and bought her that very doll for Christmas that year. Soltis’ family attended the City’s Christmas parade. “There were lots of bands, the baton twirlers were a big deal and the floats were fabulous,” she said. Her family would also head to The Hotel Roanoke to see the big Christmas tree lit. “I lived in the city,” she said, “but it seemed like it took forever to get there. We didn’t go to the market when I was little, so it was huge to see the tree.” Now, the market is the place to be and The Hotel Roanoke has added a whole other spectacle titled Fashions for Evergreen, where the lobby is lined with trees that have been decorated by companies and groups. Community members then vote on their favorites. There’s more. The History Museum features Fantasyland, which includes a display of holiday historical photos and vintage items as well as programs for kids. The O. Winston Link Museum invites kids to visit with Santa on the back of a caboose. The Roanoke Symphony performs its holiday show at the Jefferson Center. And those are just a few of the happenings.
Ben Crooks of Hanging Rock Mineral and Fossil Co. has been a vendor on the downtown Roanoke market for the past 14 years and has watched the area grow and transform into a welcoming environment. He is thankful for a mayor and city council members who love the market area. “Families used to be scared to come down here,” he said. “Now, on a Saturday, you never know what’s going to be going on down here. That’s not a bad thing.” Crooks just happened to have played a small role in this. While sitting at the old Tavern on the Market in 2001, he and fellow vendor, Woods, came up with the idea for a fall festival. “It started with fiddles and tractors,” he said. Now they have added pumpkin painting, face painting, children’s games and live performances to accompany all of the vendors selling fall fare at an official Harvest Festival. The money came out of their pocket initially, simply because they wanted something for the kids. It’s events like the Harvest Festival and Dickens of a Christmas that have helped make downtown Roanoke more inviting for families. “Our dream has come true: the kids have a place to eat pizza and buy candy, the moms can shop, and the dads can catch the game,” Crooks said. Yet, he explained that the dads don’t typically do that. Instead, they can be found alongside their families enjoying whatever the day has to offer. The Vietnam Vet and former geologist for the state of Virginia fittingly said, “It’s a jewel in their backyard.”