by James P. Hughes
photos by Jim Greene, Alaina Davis Photography, and Sandi Mulconry
“I will honor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year.”
– Charles Dickens
Charles Dickens penned these enduring words while creating his classic 1843 novella “A Christmas Carol,” a narrative long embodied in the Christmas spirit of so many. In Skaneateles, this seasonal tale has a certain significance. It forms the foundational pillar of Dickens Christmas, a village celebration and annual tip of the hat to the author, his colorful characters and the joy of the Christmas season.
A yearly trip to picturesque Skaneateles and its engaging production have become indispensable parts of the Yuletide tradition for folks, families and performing participants. Christmas spirit abounds from music to street theater, from horse-drawn carriage rides to roasted chestnuts. Along with time-honored events, each new year offers fresh surprises. Amid the lively presentation, unique shops and restaurants welcome visitors.
Behind the scenes
Colorful theatrics of the era form the heart and soul of Dickens Christmas. Characters from Dickens himself to an array of those highlighted in his famous tale roam about, all in costume, all in character, all open to whimsical conversation. This yearly production does not happen by accident. The cast of dozens, young and old, faithfully comes from far and near. They must rehearse, be costumed and master the subtleties of each character. They must be available on weekends from the day after Thanksgiving until Christmas Eve.
A recent visit with Jim and Tracey Greene opened the door to the ins and outs that bring the show alive. Jim is the producing director of Dickens Christmas. Tracey is the costumer. The Florida natives were introduced to Upstate New York long ago while acting in the annual Sterling Renaissance Festival. Tiring of life in Florida, in 1999 they were drawn to the region and moved to the Dryden countryside.
With their theatrical passions, the Greenes’ involvement in Dickens Christmas was a natural choice. Jim’s acting background includes traveling the country for renaissance performances and a stint at Disney’s Epcot Center, but he jokes that as a first role at Dickens Christmas he portrayed a “rat catcher.” Once established, Jim was encouraged by sponsors to take over leadership responsibilities, and with able assistance from Tracey and many others has done so ever since.
The premise of the event is engaging and witty. The year is 1842 and Dickens is visiting the community with Queen Victoria. The author and the queen wander about, studying local folks, along with their habits, customs and quirks, to gather material for his upcoming tale, “A Christmas Carol.” Dickens, portrayed by Jim, opens the festivities with the following statement:
“Dearest friends, I am overjoyed that this festive time of year has returned, and Her Majesty Queen Victoria and I will soon be basking in the warmth of a Skaneateles Christmas!”
From that point on, lively street theater takes over. Visitors can mingle with Dickens-era folks roaming about, all in character, emoting with period patter and wishing all a “Happy Christmas.” In addition to Charles Dickens and Queen Victoria, you may cross paths with other fascinating characters: Ebenezer Scrooge, the Christmas ghosts, Bob Cratchit, Tiny Tim, Father Christmas, undertaker Barry M. Deep … even a gaggle of street urchins and ne’er-do-wells.
“The goal of the cast is to have fun and bring the era alive, mixing the hysterical with the historical.” Tracey Greene said. “For visitors, the aim is simple: become absorbed in the Christmas spirit.”
The 2023 version of Dickens Christmas celebrates a notable landmark, the event’s 30th anniversary. It will kick off the Friday after Thanksgiving and continues each succeeding weekend through Christmas Eve. Visit skaneateles.com for more information.