It’s an event that has “lifted my town out of the ordinary” for thirty-three years, says Larry Biddison, one of the founders of Wellsboro’s Dickens of a Christmas. While many communities celebrate the holiday season with festive decorations and vendors on the street, the Wellsboro happening has always offered a layer of performance art and visitor interaction that takes it from an event to an experience.
Larry and his wife Barbara have participated in every Dickens since the first one in 1983, always in period costume, and will be on hand again Saturday, December 3, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. in Wellsboro.
“Part of the fun is that it’s different each year,” Barbara says. “We really don’t even know all that will happen. As long as folks enjoy themselves, anything goes!”
It is that spirit which prompted the newest addition to Dickens, a “best dressed” contest. The idea for the contest came about rather abruptly, says Sara Vogt. During last year’s event, Sara, of Wellsboro Home Page, was participating in the stroll for costumed participants with Julie VanNess, director of the Wellsboro Area Chamber of Commerce, and Christine Moore, the famed New York City hat maker who has been vacationing at her parents’ log cabin in Tioga County since she was a little girl, and who considers Wellsboro her “second home.” When the idea for a contest was mentioned, Christine immediately offered to create a hat for the winner.
That’s right. Win the first Dickens Best Dressed Contest and you will receive a basket over owing with local products and a custom-made chapeau from Christine Moore, the milliner to the Triple Crown.
Anyone who wants to participate in the contest needs to register at noon at the stage outside of the Deane Center on Main Street. Preregister by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org with your name and the best way to contact you. Judging will take place at 1 p.m.; the winner will be announced immediately. Whoever wins will have a place of honor in the second stroll at 2 p.m. Sara’s husband, Wellsboro Home Page’s John Vogt, will be master of ceremonies. The panel of judges features some of Wellsboro’s favorite people—Larry Biddison, Rachel Tews from The Fifth Season, Sara Vogt, and Mountain Home’s very own publisher, Teresa Banik Capuzzo. Now, before you shrug off this opportunity because you don’t know much about Victorian period clothing, read on. Accuracy or authenticity of the outfits really won’t play that large a role in the judging. Most anything that could be described as “old-fashioned” could work, advise the Biddisons, who offer a yearly costume workshop to give guidance in how to play along at Dickens.
“No jeans, sneakers, or ski jackets,” Larry laughs. “But nobody is going to say, ‘Oh, that’s not Victorian, it’s Elizabethan,’ or any such thing.”
Consider Larry and Barbara. The outfits they wear are, for the most part, adaptations of clothing anyone has in his or her closet. The red velvet cape that covers Barbara’s shoulders is actually a Christmas tree skirt. Larry made a cut-away jacket with an old suit coat and a handful of safety pins. His walking stick is a combination of wood, duct tape, and plastic wrap. Okay, his top hat is the genuine article. Good thing, as that would have been tough to make (except for Christine Moore, of course).
Dust ruffles from bed covers, tablecloths, curtains, doilies, and such provide a treasure trove of the type of material and look you want. A strip of lace to cover the top of a turtleneck, a hat pinned up in back to make a bonnet, a wool coat, and you are ready to stroll. “Not everyone needs to look like the gentry,” adds Larry. “There should always be scruffy looking street urchins and working class folks.”
“Dress warm,” advises Barbara. “Your feet are the coldest part. We often use hand warmers in our socks. And some of those elegant long skirts are hiding sweatpants or long underwear.”
The Best Dressed Contest is meant to add to the celebratory nature of the day. Larry and Barbara can tell dozens of stories of the fun they have had while in costume. “From the first year, people would ask if they could take our picture,” says Larry. “We would tell them there was a fee and you could see their faces fall—until we told them the cost was to tell us where they came from. It always started a great conversation.”
Unlike reenactors, who often adopt the persona of a historical figure, the folks at Dickens are still themselves. The Biddisons say it does happen that a friend or neighbor wants to talk about something current, but, as Barbara remarks, “most of them want to stay in the moment with us and have fun.”
The costumes play perfectly into the plays, songs and skits that happen throughout the day. “We’ve had just about everything from a snake oil salesman to firemen with a pulled hose cart rescuing a person from a second floor window. ‘Put-pockets,’ the opposite of pickpockets, have been known to slip a schedule of performances into folks’ jackets. People do poems and songs and you can always find the characters from A Christmas Carol,” says Larry. Ebenezer Scrooge himself has been known to scowl his way up and down the street, bestowing hunks of coal to anyone brave enough to wish him “Merry Christmas.” Hamilton Gibson Productions will present A Christmas Carol at the Coolidge eater and the Warehouse eater several times throughout the day; Friday evening the Hamilton Gibson Choirs will perform. Tickets may be purchased at the door. For more information and a full schedule of activities, call the Wellsboro Chamber of Commerce at (570) 724-1926 or visit www.wellsboropa.com.
So don’t sweat the costume details. But do tap into your inner Victorian and make plans to kick your holiday spirit into high gear in the prettiest little town in Pennsylvania.