On what turned out to be as sunny and crisp a December afternoon as a town could pray for last Saturday, the borough of Narberth staged the third edition of its homespun Dickens Festival.
Horse carriages rolled. Carolers caroled. A brass quartet trumpeted (and tromboned).
It has achieved, by now, a critical mass in these modest precincts of the Main Line, the strollers - and occupants of strollers - numbering in the low thousands, the spiced wassail at the Greeks so oversubscribed that owner Drew Johnson had to run down to Produce Junction to restock the apple cider: He went through 10 gallons, six more than he'd counted on.
The festival is based on Dickens' A Christmas Carol, the book's characters patrolling the sidewalks in period costume. (OK, I'm one of them, cast inexplicably as Ebenezer Scrooge for the third year running; though I admit it takes less and less time each year to get in touch with my inner Humbug.)
By some accounts, it's Dickens' nostalgic depiction of the holiday in Victorian London that defines our own secularized, de-churched American Christmas.
He paints a dark picture of the depredations of heartless industrial capitalism, personified by Mr. Scrooge's dehumanizing demands. But his robust accounts of food and feasting, even at the humble Cratchit table (and in contrast to Scrooge's miserly gruel), brighten the pages: a sensual parade of "turkeys, geese, game, poultry, brawn, great joints of meat, suckling pigs, long wreathes of sausages, mince pies, plum puddings, barrels of oysters, red hot chestnuts, cherry-cheeked apples, juicy oranges." And, of course, "seething bowls of punch that [can make] the chamber dim with their delicious steam."
Tiny Tim bangs the tabletop with the handle of his knife. His eager siblings stuff themselves on sage and onion. Potatoes bubble on the stove, "knocking loudly on the saucepan lid to be let out and peeled."
Another school of thought holds that Dickens borrowed from a visit to America to inform his tale. Could his profoundly upsetting tour of the ghostly solitary cells of Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary (as well as Pittsburgh's similarly spooky prison) in 1842 have informed the account of Scrooge's nocturnal visitations?
And his passages of rollicking Christmas festivities may have been enhanced by celebrations witnessed with the American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, even though they are sketched in the motifs of a jolly old England.
Whatever. It was Patrick Dailey, the co-owner (with his wife, Seiko) of the local Japanese market called Maido and head of the Narberth Business Association, who launched the borough's festivities. Partly, he said, he missed the Christmas villages once put out by Center City's department stores. (There's a restored one again in Macy's, the former Wanamakers.)
Dailey asked local merchants to pony up street foods, but to get beyond the hot dog.
So the Narberth Cafe's soupmeister, John DiPrimio, set out a mammoth kettle of steaming turkey soup on a Weber grill. John McShea at McShea's, a local pub, offered hot Irish whiskey toddies, spiked with lemon and clove. Next to a table set across hay bales near the SEPTA station, the Lions Club deep-fried fish and golden chips.
Faith Beckford ladled out homemade chili. Sophie Eldridge, a local girl, hawked her pumpkin loaf down the hill from Sweet Mabel's. Chestnuts roasted over hot coals outside Coco Thai, their mahogany shells split and open like the beaks of baby robins.
There was a degree of authenticity about this stand, manned by Coco Thai co-owner Jackie Arzymanow, a British expat who warmed homey, bite-sized mince tarts beside the chestnuts.
She'd made them from a jar of the mincemeat she'd put up last year, sitting around the table with her family dicing apple and adding currants and raisins, almonds, orange and lemon peel, candied pineapple and cherries, and a spot of brandy - or maybe it was sherry. (Well, that was one jar at least; the other two were from Sainsbury's, the British supermarket.)
She was joined by her partner-chef, Ann Darunee, who'd made "English" Pad Thai Stew, which was in fact just pad Thai, the momentary thought of offering a miserly lemongrass gruel having been abandoned - and wisely so.