Christmas Feature: The Cult of Panto


Christmas is coming, the goose is getting fat… So go the immortal lines that we hear every year. And with the advent of Christmas comes the inevitable Christmas panto. Every town has one; this year it’s Aladdin at the Oxford Playhouse, which is expected to draw in an astonishing 37,000 festive “panto-goers.” We’ve all seen at least one, whether it’s a distant childhood memory or a sacrosanct annual ritual. For the month of December and much too far into January the classic pantomine, from amateur productions to West End spectacles, dominates our theatres across the country, bringing ample ‘its-behind-you’ cheese and comic-cringe fun. At heart they all have the same plot: cross-dressing prince and princess live happily every after, fairy-godmother in drag, do-gooder lad who gets all the best lines, all rounded off with a hearty sing-along.

Call me a Scrooge, but I for one have to wonder what precisely is the appeal of the Christmas pantomime. Why do we tolerate the puns, the glitter and the rambunctious applauding year after year, when at any other time, theatre like this would be laughed off the stage.

Perhaps because the pantomime as a tradition is part of our cultural fabric. Not only do the majority of us have fond memories of school trips to the panto, overloaded on sugar and excitement – at an age when school still meant sand-pits and colouring rather than anything ressembling hard work – the roots of this kind of theatre can be traced far back in western culture.

Pantomime or pantomimos, was a popular form of theatre in Ancient Greece, with elements of comedy and tragedy often set to music. English pantomime as we know (and love?) it today, can be traced back to the Mummers Plays of the Middle Ages. Troupes of actors would tour the country during festival seasons, performing plays which comprised set pieces of stage fights, bawdy humour and popular myths that the audience would all have known well, much as we know Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, and Peter Pan today.

Festivity and merry-making has thus long been linked to pantomime, which is perhaps why nowadays for many it is a treasured Christmas tradition. “Christmas isn’t Christmas without a pantomime”, says one avid theatre-goer. As the days get shorter and colder, booking your pantomime tickets can create a Christmas light to look forward to at the end of the winter tunnel. Many see it as a rare opportunity in today’s increasingly hectic world to bring the family together for a special shared experience that can be enjoyed by all generations. Parents are keen to take their children so that they can feel a little bit of the magic they remember from their own childhood. And, as we know all too well in Oxford, once it becomes a tradition, there’s no going back!

Indeed, it may be that the real charm is in knowing exactly what you can expect from a pantomime. “Oh no it isn’t” you may cry, but oh yes it really is, the characters and costumes may change, but parents and teachers can rest easy knowing there will be no swear words and nothing horrifying or graphic. The most risqué it will get is a mild double entendre thrown in to get a laugh from the older members of the audience.

So whilst I remain determined to avoid any whiff of genies in bottles and magic beans this December, I am ready to admit that at a time when we could all do with some cheer in our lives, the classic Christmas panto continues to prosper, delighting audiences of all ages with some harmless festive frivolity.



Image// Flickr – Iain Patterson


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