A Dickens Holiday

  • By Molly Harrison
  • Photography by Stacey Haines

Every Black Friday, street performers act out the characters in A Christmas Carol, bringing thousands of people together on the tree-lined streets of downtown Fayetteville.

Fayetteville Dickens Holiday Celebration

The ghost walks down Hay Street on the day after Thanksgiving. His sinister face is gray, his eyes are dark, and his lips are a shadowy purple. And he’s wrapped in chains.

“Scrooge!” he yells. Children cower. “Scrooge!”

Eventually, the ghost of Jacob Marley will find Ebenezer Scrooge in his long johns and cap, spreading “bah, humbugs.” From then on, the ghost exists only to antagonize Scrooge. For hours, he follows Scrooge through a crowd of people who fill downtown Fayetteville. For hours, he hovers, whispers, shouts, and torments him with visions of the past and future.

This is all Brian Mayers did on the day after Thanksgiving in 2008 and 2009 — he haunted Scrooge. In those years, Mayers portrayed the ghost in Fayetteville’s A Dickens Holiday celebration. For 11 years, Mayers and professional actors like him have dressed up as the characters in A Christmas Carol, creating an event that transforms this brick-paved street into a theater and fills it with nearly 10,000 people each Black Friday.

The actors roam in the crowd while festival-goers enjoy sales, live music, carriage rides, and holiday treats.

“I love playing Jacob Marley,” says Mayers, an actor and student in the theater department at Fayetteville State University. “Street theater gives me a chance to be creative. I can make [Marley] as big as I want. I can make him as loud as I want. I can use the people in the street as my props.”

Playing alongside Mayers in 2009 was George Quigley as Scrooge. Quigley performs regularly in local theater, and he got his first acting job at A Dickens Holiday a few years ago, when the actor playing Jacob Marley didn’t show up. Familiar with the story lines of A Christmas Carol, he filled in on the fly. He has played a major character in the festival ever since. “It’s a special treat because I get to wander around and raise Cain with people,” Quigley says. “I have so much fun as a sidewalk performer. And I never break character, which makes my friends angry.”

That’s part of the beauty of this event. The actors stick with it. They stay in their roles, despite the crowd and despite all possible distractions. Last year, a young girl watching Quigley’s Scrooge character interact with Jacob Marley said to him, “Really, Mr. Scrooge, you should learn how to be nice.”

All in a military town

Fayetteville is best-known as the home of Fort Bragg, the United States Army post that nearly 50,000 troops and their families call home. It’s a place where barber shops and surplus stores line many of the streets, and uniformed soldiers walking through the mall is expected, not surprising. It’s a place where deployments and returns home make the holidays a time of heightened emotions. It is not, however, a place that’s immediately thought of as an arts town.

But it’s becoming one, thanks to the Arts Council of Fayetteville/Cumberland County and Fayetteville’s Downtown Alliance, the organizations that produce A Dickens Holiday. About 150 volunteers help produce the event, and they come dressed in costume, portraying Victorian-era characters. Many have some connection to the military, which makes the mixture of people more diverse.

“People don’t look at Fayetteville as an arts community, but we have a strong international artistic community,” Fayetteville businessman John Malzone says. “That’s the Fort Bragg influence.”

Military spouse and Fayetteville resident Eleonore Aarsen volunteers at A Dickens Holiday and several other Arts Council events. “People come here from all over the world,” Aarsen says, “and they are surprisingly interested in the arts. Often a military wife will just walk into the Arts Council to volunteer. There’s a lot of interest in the arts that you wouldn’t suspect.”

At the same time, it’s a given that a volunteer may have to drop out of a commitment suddenly because of deployment or a transfer, but someone else is always available to take their place.

For several years, Aarsen’s husband, John, stood out at the festival for riding a Victorian-era, high-wheel bicycle. There aren’t many people who can ride such a bicycle. But John Aarsen can, in as much Victorian garb as he can manage on the precarious bike. Together, the Aarsens also managed the distribution of the 5,000 candles that are lit in the Candlelight Procession, one of the highlights of the event. This year, John has been deployed. Because no one else knows how to ride it, there will be no bicycle, and Eleonore will manage the candle distribution without him.

Achieving authenticity

To help volunteers and shopkeepers achieve Victorian-era authenticity, Phoebe Hall, associate professor and director of theatre at Fayetteville State, teaches an annual workshop. Dozens of people show up to learn about the Victorian time period and how people dressed, spoke, and moved. Hall encourages them to develop a character with a name, a hometown, and a history.

Hall teaches people how to walk, upright and reserved, like the Victorians did. She teaches them to replace greetings such as “Hey” and “Hi” with “Top of the morning” or “Gentle morning to you.” She teaches them old-fashioned social courtesies, such as not touching others when speaking to them. She also teaches acting tips, such as how to get and stay in character.

“It’s ‘How to be an actor in 10 easy steps,’” Hall says. “As much as I can, I prepare them for being out on the street where they have to think on their feet quickly.”

Costumes vary from fancy to simple. Some people purchase or sew their own clothes. The local theater groups loan their Victorian costumes out for some of the volunteers. The Arts Council also teaches people how to dress Victorian with what they have or what they can get at a bargain rate in local stores.

“We see all levels of costumes,” says Mary Kinney, marketing manager of the Arts Council. “Some people really get into the costumes. But you don’t have to spend money or sew to look Victorian. You can dress right out of your closet.”

A downtown culture

Eleven years ago, Hay Street on Black Friday was empty. The revival of downtown Fayetteville was only beginning, and most of the day-after-Thanksgiving traffic was farther out, away from the town’s center, near the malls.

Local painter and ceramic artist Greg Hathaway and Arts Council Executive Director Deborah Martin Mintz wanted to change that. After a little brainstorming, they came up with A Dickens Holiday.

“The arts are all about solving problems in communities,” Mintz says. “We needed to create an event that used the arts to encourage people to come downtown.”

Soon, A Dickens Holiday, with its improvisational actors and musicians, was drawing people to downtown businesses. “Dickens was easy to pull off,” Hathaway says. “We had the infrastructure with brick streets and lampposts. We had the theater as a costume resource. We had the pieces; we just had to assemble them. But I’ve worked on events like this for 35 years. I knew we had to have volunteers.”

Still, there were snags. At 4:30 p.m. on the day of the first event, in 1999, Mintz realized she didn’t have an emcee. In haste, she turned to Malzone, a downtown businessman who wanted to see Hay Street thrive as much as anyone. Malzone took the job, and he’s held it ever since.

Fayetteville lights

In that first year, about 3,000 people showed up for the event. But something special happened that year, something that planted the seed for what A Dickens Holiday could become.

The city’s streetlights went off, and the crowd of about 1,000 people passed flames to each other’s candles, holding up light. They began to walk down Hay Street in silence.

Suddenly, Malzone had the urge to sing “Silent Night” out loud. As he started, the crowd joined in. “The sound moved back through the crowd like a wave,” Malzone says. “It was beautiful.”

Every year, the Candlelight Procession and Tree Lighting are perhaps the most popular parts of the event. The candle-holding crowd now sings Christmas carols.

Then, at the push of a button by Tiny Tim (and the behind-the-scenes help of public works personnel who volunteer to be on hand), the tree and all the streetlights and holiday decorations light up at once.

“When you’re up in the Market House looking down Hay Street at thousands of people with candles, oh my God, it’s the most amazing sight,” Hall says. “It really is something quite unique and very special.”

It is, simply, a moment when people from all over the world gather on a brick-paved street to celebrate one of the oldest holiday traditions in a distinctly different way, lighting up Fayetteville together.

Even some of the youngest participants understand the significance.

Sixteen-year-old Jessica Faass helped distribute the candles at the 2009 celebration.

“My favorite memory of the night is the candles,” Faass says. “Everyone lights candles and starts heading toward the Market House. It was like everyone was all one.”

See it in the East

Where to Catch A Christmas Carol in Eastern North Carolina

December 10-12

Center Stage Theatre
Goldsboro Paramount
(919) 429-9212

New Bern
December 1-24

A Dickens of a Christmas
(252) 637-3111

Rocky Mount
December 16

Dunn Center
N.C. Wesleyan College
(252) 985-5197

December 7

The Centre at Halifax Community College
(252) 538-4336

Molly Harrison is a freelance writer and editor. She lives in Nags Head and is the author of several books about the Outer Banks, including Exploring Cape Hatteras and Cape Lookout National Seashores, The Corolla Walking Tour, and The Hatteras Driving Tour.

This entry was posted in Arts & Entertainment, December 2010, People, Piedmont, Travel and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to A Dickens Holiday

  1. Base AO says:

    I’m always glad to see the arts community growing around fort bragg!

  2. Robin Delawder says:

    My father, Sammy Birchfield, was in the paper copy of this magazine as Father Christmas. He has since passed away, and I would like to get a few copies of this for my children. Please e-mail me, or call 740-550-0645. Thank you.
    Robin Delawder

    • ourstate says:

      We’ve emailed you directly about purchasing extra copies of our December 2010 issue. Please let us know if you have any other questions. We are very sorry to hear about your father. The photograph of him in conjunction with this story was lovely.

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