Christmas in Ireland: The Christmas Panto!

Christmas in Ireland: The Christmas Panto.

I admit it: I look forward to the annual Christmas Pantomime every year. I had heard about them in old Christmas books, but of course had never been to one. We just don’t have these in the States. When I first came over to Ireland for Christmas , I was thrilled to hear that there were not one, but two different pantomimes held in Cork during December and January. Brilliant! At last!  I was psyched to go, but then was told “No way! The Pantos are for children. An adult can’t go… everyone would think you were a nutter!”  I was crushed.

"Alice in Wonderland" at the Cork Opera House last year.

“Alice in Wonderland” at the Cork Opera House last year.

Determined to see this Christmas tradition, it didn’t take me long to figure out I could invite my young niece and nephew. I could get to see my panto by using little Jack and Orla as camouflage! Twenty years later I still go to the panto every year. We pretend we’re taking the young ones, our Christmas present to our nieces and nephew (now four of them), but we all know they’re really chaperoning me.

The annual Christmas Pantomime is a hugely popular, eagerly attended part of the Christmas season throughout Ireland and the UK.  The Panto is a deliberately campy, over-the-top  stageshow that incorporates ham acting, singing and dancing, corny humor, men in drag, audience participation, topical references, and double entendres…  all aimed for children… but not-so-secretely loved by adults.  Picture a children’s theatre, crossed with a vaudeville music hall, the Rocky Horror Picture Show, MTV, and a touch of Jim Henson. A slice of old fashioned entertainment!

Traditional Harlequin and Columbine.

Traditional Harlequin and Columbine.

What are pantos? How did they begin? The Pantomime (which today  luckily has Nothing to do with Mime) is descended from the Harlequin and Columbina plays of the Commedia dell’arte dating back as far as the 16th Century. Simple sketch plays featuring stock characters depicting typical types of people, with bawdy humor, improvisation, and props: kind of a Punch & Judy Show with live actors.

London theatres in the 18th Century carried on this tradition, first as silent performances with only dancing and gestures (thus “pantomime”). Following nicely in the footsteps laid by the Medieval Mummer’s Plays associated especially with Twelfth Night, the Pantomimes quickly became a popular entertainment during the Christmas season. By the mid 19th Century the shows became more elaborate, with witty and topical dialogue, slapstick, and often spectacular and elaborate theatrical effects. The plots evolved from simple skits to a small repertoire based on nursery rhymes and folk tales. We’re talking twisted fairy tales here, with little resemblance and very little regard for the original tales.

Antique poster for a Christmas Pantomime.

Antique poster for a Christmas Pantomime.

There is usually little or no reference to Christmas; the basic subject is adopted from a children’s story such as from Cinderella, Aladdin, Jack & the Bean Stalk, Snow White or other such chestnut, and freely borrows characters and features from other tales, or invents wholly new bits you’ve never heard of nor dreamt. It is assumed that the audience is so familiar with the original story that there is little effort to develop the plot which is instead adapted for comic or satirical effect.*

Hurry! The curtain rises in five minutes! Cork opera House 2013.

Hurry! The curtain rises in five minutes! Cork opera House 2013.

The curtain rises. Enter the hero: “Hello boys and girls! I said HELLO BOYS AND GIRLS!!!”  and repeated yet again until the audience responds loud enough.

The mad performance follows a stereotyped routine with a love triangle that includes the hero and heroine, a comic lead played by a man in drag (the Panto Dame), an evil menace, a friendly godmother sort, and a lowly servant or other character who befriends the audience, is menaced by the villain and is besotted with the heroine. Every production includes a scary scene of dark menace, and a slapstick grand chase. And then there’s the famous banter with the audience. The Dame “recognizes” people in the audience:

“Is that Mary? Mary dear, you’re looking wonderful! In this light ye can’t tell you had Botox at all!”

And the audience does indeed participate, with the enthusiasm you would expect of children at Christmas. Not just booing and hissing the villain, or sympathizing “Ahhhhh” with the lowly friend. The cast will prompt the audience, but It’s just a formality… everyone knows the score.  The packed theatre will warn the hero (“Look behind you!”), and argue with the villain (“Oh no they don’t!” “Oh yes they do!” Oh no they don’t!”) You get the idea.

The brilliant cast of this year's panto at the Cork Opera House.

The brilliant cast of this year’s panto at the Cork Opera House.

I suspect most of the audience is there for the song and dance (including the dreaded audience participation bit at the end). The best of the panto for me is the topical humor. Beyond the winks and nods at pop culture, hit songs and celebrities, there are plenty of razor barbs aimed at politics and current events, and naughty double entendres galore. Clever and witty, these bits are played for the adults in the house, but still enjoyed by the children on their own level.

After all these years I’d hate to think of celebrating Christmas without this tradition. The first niece we took, Orla, is now an adult close to setting off for college; nephew Jack… well he’s as tall as the beanstalk, and little Amy and Rachel are growing as fast as they can. They all grow up too fast, and soon I fear will probably be too old for this tradition. On the other hand, so far even Orla still loves going to the Panto with us, and we’ve just gained a new nephew less than a year old… I think my Christmas celebrations are safe for years to come!


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A Festival of Christmas Trees.

A Festival of Christmas Trees.

Christmas! That most wonderful time of year! The holidays start early here on Nantucket Island, with our annual Christmas stroll celebrated on the first weekend of December. To get us all in the mood, and start the season off with the right festive bang, we have the Nantucket Historical Association’s magical Festival of Trees. Now in its 20th year, the Festival presents over 90 Christmas trees designed and decorated by a wide variety of people and organizations from our community, nestled and overflowing throughout our historic Whaling Museum. Holiday magic indeed!

The Antiques Depot's "Magic of Christmas", NHA Festival of Trees 2009.

The Antiques Depot’s “Magic of Christmas”, NHA Festival of Trees 2009.

I am completely crazy about Christmas Trees (it’s a German thing), so of course I am a huge fan of this festival … in fact my wife and I Chaired the event for the last two years and remain on the committee. The Antiques Depot has been putting up a tree in the museum for about ten years now, each one telling a specific tale. Of course Christmas trees weren’t always this expansive… not even in my family where we used to put up seven different trees… and more decorated outside!

Christmas trees began rather simply, as far as we can tell, long before Christmas itself. No one appreciates nature and greenery like the pagans: the ancient Romans used evergreen boughs to decorate their temples during the feast of Saturnalia; the druids worshiped under oak trees and favored mistletoe; and the Germanic tribes and Scandinavians brought pine and fir branches and trees into their homes for a little life during the winter solstice.

The Antiques Depot at Christmas Time.

The Antiques Depot at Christmas Time.

During the Middle Ages clergymen, and later traveling bands of minstrels, performed Mystery or Miracle Plays to illustrate simple tales from the Bible: those telling about Adam and Eve, their fall from grace, and the promise of a coming savior became associated with Advent. In Germany and France these plays often employed a Paradise Tree decorated with apples, and perhaps holy wafers. In fact the first documented use of a tree at Christmas and New Year celebrations was around 1510 in the far northern Germanic territory around Riga or Tallinn. This was most likely a Paradise Tree rather than a proper Christmas Tree, and after a ceremony it was burnt (like a forerunner of a Yule Log). By the end of the century Germans were parading a festive tree through the streets, often followed by a man on horseback dressed a bishop… good old St. Nicholas we presume.

Steel engraving of Martin Luther's Christmas Tree, from Sartain's Magazine, circa 1860

Steel engraving of Martin Luther’s Christmas Tree, from Sartain’s Magazine, circa 1860

The first proper Christmas Tree, where a fir was brought inside a house and lit with candles, we attribute to Martin Luther in the mid 16th Century, who was said to have likened the tree to the heavenly sky from whence the Christ Child came down to earth on Christmas Eve. Germans love a party, and Luther’s simple tree soon came to be decorated with gold covered apples, sugared plums, cherries and pears, nuts, dates, pretzels, paper flowers, gingerbread figures and dough fashioned into the likeness of various animals. Atop the early trees were at first a Christ Child, and in time the angel which brought forth good tidings, or the star which led the Wise men. And once the glass makers got involved, we were well and truly off and running!

Woodblock Engraving of "The Christmas Tree" by Winslow Homer, from Harper's Weekly, 1858

Woodblock Engraving of “The Christmas Tree” by Winslow Homer, from Harper’s Weekly, 1858.

Christmas trees (even Christmas in general) had a rough time taking route in America. The Protestant establishment throughout the colonies had a grim view of Christmas, and the Puritans banned the holiday outright in New England. Hessian soldiers are believed to have celebrated with Christmas trees during the American Revolutionary War, and certainly German immigrants brought the custom with them to Pennsylvania, Ohio, and wherever else they settled. But the custom spread slowly. Even by the mid 19th Century America still wasn’t in the Christmas spirit: schools stayed open on Christmas Day, and ministers wouldn’t allow any such “pagan” trappings within their churches.

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert's Christmas Tree

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s Christmas Tree.

The Christmas Tree didn’t become popular in Great Britain until Queen Victoria’s German husband Prince Albert decorated a Christmas Tree in Windsor Castle.A drawing of the event published in the Illustrated London News in 1848, and republished in Godey’s Lady’s Book in 1850 (with the Queen’s crown and the Prince’s mustache removed to appear more “American”) went a long way in popularizing Christmas Trees in both the UK and the US. When a generous dash of Dickens was added to the punch… well, Christmas was here to stay.

Christmas Trees are now every-where, even in households that don’t celebrate Christmas.  Artificial trees have come to rival natural trees in popularity and over the last century their ornamentation has continued to evolve, reflecting the times in which they live. And there is perhaps no better place to see this in all its wonder and glory, than in the Festival of Trees on Nantucket.

The Night After Christmas (Festival of Trees 2010)

The Night After Christmas (Festival of Trees 2010)


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