How to Organise a Dickens Christmas Festival.  Deventer is a 1.5-hour train ride from Amsterdam, and with a population of around 100,000, it is officially a city. Together with the city of Haarlem, Deventer was one of the first cities to have printing presses - dating all the way back to 1488. This was the first hint of its future literary legacy. Fast forward to the present day and, every August, Deventer also boasts the biggest book market in Europe, with 6 km of books available for sale and 120,000 visitors per day. With its atmospheric cobbled stone streets and original and restored architecture, Deventer is also an apt setting for the annual Dickens Festival.

In 1990, Emmy Strik started a costumed Christmas Dickens shopping Sunday. Over time, it became so successful that now it is managed by a professional organization, Evenementenbureau dEVENTer. The festival receives 125,000 visitors over 2 days; both days running from 11 am to 5 p.m. One-hundred and seventy busses loaded with fans arrive from neighboring Germany, the coaches dropping visitors and collecting them in the early evening from a depot nearby. In order to manage the large numbers of visitors, the organization has a queue at the entrance of the (free) festival. The waiting time can be up to 1,5 hours.

The current festival is made up of professional actors, who play scenes and characters from Dickens’ famous books (Oliver Twist, The Pickwick Papers, A Christmas Carol, Bleak House, etc.), and 950 locals all milling about in costume. Each year the residents of the Bergkwartier, theatre groups and choir go to the costume storage (a former women’s prison), where 1,000 costumes and accessories are stored over two floors. The costumes range in style (from aristocratic to ragged), to reflect genuine attire from the 19th-century Victorian era. Residents can rent costumes for €10, and this covers any repairs, dry cleaning, etc. With the help of the local authority and many volunteers, the Evenementenbureau dEVENTer place noticeboards around a cordoned-off area and ask people to move their cars, because of the festival. Street decorations are hung on and across buildings; a Christmas tree might be found hanging lop-sided in an odd location, for example, giving the festival a ghoulish atmosphere.

The first official Dickens festival letter is sent to residents at the beginning of October. A continuous stream of organizational tasks follows. A license is required for various authorities, such as the city council, the police, and the fire brigade, all wanting to know what ‘Plan B’ looks like, e.g. What happens if a fire breaks out? A full evacuation plan needs to be ready at all times. About 90% of the residents participate in the festival. I asked the organizers to tell me their most important lesson learned, and they replied that communication was of utmost importance. They send personal updates, continually informing residents of any changes, and inviting them to meetings to discuss and contribute to resolving any issues, e.g. moving the festival to the second week of December, and making sure it does not continue into the third week. So, residents do not need to read about the festival happenings in the newspaper. This approach has worked like a charm for the organizers.

During the festival, the office turns into a command post and co-ordinates the emergency plan. The director, police, and health care workers are all on standby and listening for any incoming messages on their walkie-talkies, so that they can deploy the necessary help in the right location. During the festival, voluntary scouts are milling about and acting as festival hosts. Five security cameras are sited throughout the festival location, to monitor the crowd, and security professionals are available to alert the command post if help is needed.

Bergkwartier residents are allowed to sell food on the day, but they need a license to do so, which costs €25 for two days. The food and drink must be in the spirit of Dickens, meaning that plates and cutlery have to be ‘original’, or at least reflective of the era. Boards advertising food and drink cannot advertise ‘Gluweijn’, but instead ‘mulled wine’. Roasted chestnuts, puffed potatoes, and much more are also sold.

Attention to detail is key, and this means that things have improved over the years. For example, in previous years cars were visible in some photographs, and of course, this is very un-Dickensy!
There is no entrance fee for the festival; the organizers receive a subsidy from the city council and region, income from many sponsorships, a food license fee, and a costume fee. The local shops also have to pay a small fee. The festival has even partnered up with the national train company, NS and, due to demand, NS has provided extra, longer trains. You will even be greeted on the platform by actors wearing a Dickens costume.

If you want to get into the atmosphere of Christmas, this event is well worth attending. For more information: 

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