The Appeal of the Dickens Festival

Charlotte Mandy, Editor

A steady stream of people ebbs and flows across Main Street Medford, bundled and bent against the cold of the coming winter. Food vendors, companies, and artists bid for their attention on either side of a road that has been emptied of cars; among the throng, some top hats and hoop skirts can be seen, undoubtedly competing in the costume contest. Mr and Mrs Claus have lit the tree at the gazebo and may be dispensing cookies somewhere, if you can only find them. Snatches of “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and “Blue Christmas” float overhead from carolers perched on porches and small stages. Nestled down by the river is a live nativity, telling the story of the birth of Christ complete with music, costumes, and an assortment of animals…not the least of which being a camel. 

It is the 28th Annual Medford Dickens Festival, a yearly tradition that does its very best to transform the streets into something out of the days of Charles Dickens, when streetlamps were gaslit and horse-drawn carriages gathered a fine dusting of snow.

Of course, it wasn’t snowing this week, and there were a few neon signs and bouncy castles thrown in, but I’m sure the innovation-minded Victorians would be delighted.

The weekends of December are arguably some of the busiest of the year, and yet people pour in from communities miles away. The festival’s official Facebook page estimates an average of ten thousand people have made it part of their holiday tradition. It has, over the years, inevitably evolved to meet the entertainment and consumerist needs of people, and even many vendors are offering customers the ability to pay with their phones. But what is it that brings people back to the Dickens Festival?

It could, of course, be the visual spectacle of it, amidst jugglers and livestock and finery, but I should think it is above all else a rare kind of light-hearted indulgence, like going to see the Rockefeller Christmas Tree or the movies on New Years Eve or whatever familial traditions people collect. Unlike the Halloween Parade, which is arguably geared towards the sweet-toothed younger generation, the Dickens Festival is a gathering of all ages, a friendly anachronism that reminds people to look up from their busy schedule and watch the year draw to its close. And not without a bit of food or frivolity. Or the occasional Frozen character (Let It Go. And by it, I mean Frozen).

After all, apart from its age, what connection does Medford, NJ have to a long-dead English novelist? Perhaps simply that both like to immortalize tidings of comfort and joy. And top hats.