A Dickens of a Time: Revisiting a Victorian Holiday Tradition in Omaha’s Old MarketNov 01, 2022 08:22AM ● By Sara Locke
During the hustle and bustle of the winter holiday season, it’s hard to stop and simply take it all in: lights lining the streets, Christmas carols emanating from store speakers, wafts of cinnamon and vanilla flowing from sweet treat shops. And once upon a time, an Old Market event concentrated that joy and goodwill for all.
When KETV Channel 7 challenged event management firm Vic Gutman and Associates to engage the community in a new and exciting way, Gutman delivered a holiday extravaganza that delighted Omaha’s young—and young at heart—and kept the celebration alive for nearly a decade.
Founded in 1987, Dickens in the Market brought the holiday spirit to countless revelers and left sweet memories, still savored years after the final carol was sung. Inspired by a similar event in Galveston, Texas, Dickens in the Market changed hands after three years and was sponsored by the Old Market Business Association for the remainder of its run.
Gutman’s team transformed the sights and sounds of Omaha’s Old Market each year with performers dressed in historically accurate Victorian-era attire. Festively decked out by Ibsen’s Costume Gallery owner, Dwayne Ibsen, each performer embodied not only the holiday spirit but filled the streets with hope and Christmas glee.
“Dwayne is really a master at creating these really beautiful, really intricate pieces,” Gutman noted. “He put so much thought and work into each costume. It really elevated what this event was able to portray and how immersive we were able to be with it.”
Gutman battled a tight budget, reluctant neighboring businesses, even Mother Nature herself to pull off the event, year after year.
“We had some years when the snowstorms made it nearly impossible—for the performers to make it through the streets, and for onlookers to even want to be there,” he said.
Along the streets, Old Market visitors enjoyed performance art and holiday vendors. Sprinkled along the path: German-roasted almonds and seasonal wares for sale. They even organized a tour of nearby homes during the early years of the event, allowing guests to experience the festively decorated condos and apartments of the historic Old Market.
Each year, Gutman reached out to neighboring businesses to join in the festivities. Some decorated their spaces with vintage holiday cheer, and some offered special holiday treats, but they all engaged with the joyous crowd in some form.
“The event in Galveston has a huge budget,” Gutman explained. “It’s Texas, so they aren’t dealing with sudden snow or below-freezing temperatures. Finding a way to clear the streets so carriages can make it through or keeping the event safe while snow plows are making their rounds, kept us on our toes the entire run. We did have a lot of enthusiastic people trying to make something really beautiful for the city. And whatever obstacles we faced, we definitely accomplished that goal.”
While murmurs to revive the festivities are humming, Gutman is instead committed to preserving its memory. “We never wanted to put on something for its own sake. This was a wonderful event, and anything that doesn’t capture the spirit of what we were putting on in that 1987 to 1996 time frame just won’t cut it. We love the work we did and memories we kept.”
Gutman still utilizes his unique skill set and vast network to facilitate the Omaha Holiday Market, the Holiday Lights Festival, and other annual Omaha events, but Dickens in the Market may be the most memorable, theatrical, and heartwarming event on his resume. While the sights and sounds of the event may have stalled, the memories are as jolly as ever. As Dickens himself said, “There is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good humor.”
This article originally appeared in the November/December 2022 issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.