Pantomime at Christmas: Fun Xmas Tradition

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There’s something uniquely magical about the festive season, a time of year steeped in tradition and filled with joy and nostalgia.

Among the many cultural customs associated with Christmas, one of the most beloved in the United Kingdom and other parts of the world is the theatrical tradition of pantomime.

This unique form of entertainment, usually referred to simply as ‘panto,’ has become as much a part of Christmas as turkey, gifts, and carol singing.

Marti pellow dressed as the villain in the panto
Marti Pellow in Dick Whittington 2022 – Birmingham Hippodrome – Photo credit: Paul Coltas

The Origins of Pantomime

The term “pantomime” originally referred to a type of performance involving music, songs, dialogue, and dance, all performed in a highly stylised manner. Pantomime’s roots can be traced back to ancient Roman times, but the form that we’re familiar with today – full of slapstick comedy, audience participation, and theatrical spectacle – originated in 16th century Italy in the form of ‘Commedia dell’arte’. It arrived in England in the 18th century and has been a fixture of the festive season ever since.

Key Features of Pantomime

Pantomime performances are typically based on traditional children’s stories, often fairy tales, and they are known for their unique set of conventions.

Gender-Swapping Roles in Panto

The ‘Principal Boy,’ usually the hero of the story, is often played by a young woman in male costume, while the ‘Dame,’ a comic, older female character, is usually played by a man in extravagant female attire. This gender-swapping is a cherished tradition that adds to the fun and unconventional atmosphere of the pantomime.

Audience Participation in Panto

One of the most distinctive aspects of pantomime is the high level of audience participation. Spectators are encouraged to cheer the heroes, boo the villains, and often join in with catchphrases or songs. The phrase “He’s behind you!” has become a well-known panto catchphrase, traditionally shouted by the audience when a character is being pursued or stalked by another.

Slapstick Comedy and Double Entendre

Pantomimes are full of slapstick humor and often include a messy scene involving ‘slosh,’ a type of theatrical custard pie. The script also typically features double entendre – jokes that have a second, usually adult, meaning – ensuring there’s plenty of humor for the grown-ups in the audience too.

dame and principal boy/man in costume in the panto
Birmingham Hippodrome Panto – Dick Whittington – Photo Credit: Paul Coltas

Pantomime and Christmas

Though pantomimes can be performed at any time of the year, they have become strongly associated with the Christmas and New Year period. The reasons for this are complex and varied. The festive season is a time for families to come together, and the inclusive, intergenerational appeal of pantomime makes it an ideal form of entertainment for this time of year.

Moreover, the tradition of holiday pantomime was boosted in the Victorian era when employers began to give workers time off at Christmas, allowing families to attend pantomime performances together. This cultural custom has continued to the present day, making pantomime a beloved part of the holiday season.

The Cultural Significance of Pantomime

The tradition of pantomime is about more than just entertainment; it has cultural and societal significance as well. Pantomimes often include contemporary references and topical humor, providing a unique snapshot of society at the time of each performance. They’re also a way of introducing children to the theatre and instilling a love of performing arts from an early age.

Famous Pantomime Productions and Stars

Many pantomimes have become famous, with some theatres known for their annual spectaculars. It’s not uncommon for famous actors, comedians, and even pop stars to star in these productions, drawing in even larger audiences. Over the years, iconic figures such as Sir Ian McKellen, Pamela Anderson, and even David Hasselhoff have tread the boards in pantomime, adding a touch of star-studded glamour to the festive fun.

Pantomime Outside the UK

While pantomime is a distinctly British tradition, it has found its way to other parts of the world, including Australia, Canada, and even the United States. While the style may differ slightly, the spirit of fun, audience participation, and festive cheer remains the same.

Modern Interpretations and Innovations

Pantomime is a tradition, but it’s not static. Modern productions often incorporate new technology, with impressive stage effects, 3D projections, and even interactive elements. Some productions have also started to challenge traditional gender roles and stereotypes, reflecting broader societal changes.

The Importance of Local Theatre

Pantomimes are often a vital income source for local theatres, contributing significantly to their yearly revenue. By attending a pantomime, audiences are not only enjoying a fun-filled show, but also supporting the arts in their community.

Pantomime During the Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic had a profound impact on live theatre. Many pantomimes were cancelled or moved online, with companies innovating to bring the joy of panto to audiences at home. This recent history underscores the resilience of this tradition, and the determination of those involved to keep the magic of pantomime alive.

stage set of panto with dancers in costume
Dick Whittington Pantomime at Birmingham Hippodrome – Photo Credit: Paul Coltas

Examples of Pantomimes and Stories

Here are examples of some popular pantomime productions often seen on stages around the world during the festive season:

1. Aladdin: The story of Aladdin, his magic lamp, and the wicked sorcerer is a classic pantomime favorite. Expect a flying carpet, a magical genie, and plenty of laughs.

2. Cinderella: The tale of Cinderella, her wicked stepmother and ugly stepsisters, the Fairy Godmother, and the Prince is one of the most beloved pantomimes. There’s usually a big scene with the transformation of Cinderella and the pumpkin into a beautiful princess and a glittering coach.

3. Jack and the Beanstalk: The story of a boy who trades his family’s cow for magic beans, leading to an encounter with a giant, makes for a thrilling pantomime with lots of opportunities for spectacle and comedy.

4. Sleeping Beauty: The tale of a princess cursed to sleep for a hundred years has all the elements for a classic pantomime, complete with a heroic prince and a wicked fairy.

5. Dick Whittington: Based on the real-life Richard Whittington, a medieval merchant and politician, this pantomime tells the story of Dick and his cat seeking their fortune in London, where the streets are supposedly paved with gold.

6. Peter Pan: While not a traditional fairy tale, J.M. Barrie’s story of the boy who wouldn’t grow up has become a popular choice for pantomime, with its swashbuckling pirates, flying children, and a crocodile that ticks.

7. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs: This classic fairy tale, made even more popular by the Disney film, is another pantomime favorite. Expect a wicked queen, a magic mirror, and of course, seven dwarfs.

8. Beauty and the Beast: The tale of a beautiful girl who falls in love with a prince cursed to look like a beast is another classic that’s been adapted into a popular pantomime.

9. Mother Goose: Though less known than some others, Mother Goose is a classic pantomime, traditionally starring the Dame. The story often involves Mother Goose being tempted by wealth and beauty, only to realize in the end that love and friendship are more important.

10. Puss in Boots: The tale of a clever cat who uses trickery and deceit on behalf of his master to gain power, wealth, and the hand of a princess is another story that’s well suited to the pantomime format.

These stories have been told and retold in countless ways over the years, each production bringing its own unique twists to the classic tales.

Tradition of Panto

The tradition of pantomime at Christmas is a cherished one, full of joy, laughter, and festive spirit. It’s a time for families to come together, for adults to embrace their inner child, and for everyone to participate in a centuries-old theatrical tradition.

The tradition of Christmas pantomime, a unique form of theatrical entertainment originating from 16th century Italy, has become a cherished part of the holiday season in the UK and beyond. Known for its distinctive features such as gender-swapping roles, audience participation, and slapstick comedy, pantomime brings families together, instills a love for performing arts, and provides a snapshot of society at the time of each performance. Despite changing times and even global crises, the enduring appeal of pantomime continues to add joy, laughter, and festive spirit to Christmas celebrations.

Read more about Christmas Traditions and Customs