Many of our principal Christmas traditions – the decorated tree, printed cards, crackers, and eating turkey – were popularised by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. But when did our love for panto start? As a child, panto might be your first encounter with live theatre, where you get to see your favourite TV or sports star, but this eccentric and quintessentially British tradition, like many of our other festive rituals, has deep roots in the past.
In the sixteenth century, the street theatre of the Commedia dell’Arte toured in Italy and France to put on shows in marketplaces and fairgrounds. Among the main characters were the old man Pantalone, Pierrot the clown, and Columbine, the girl in love with Arlecchino, the unruly servant.
These iconic characters started to appear in England from the late 1600s in comic plays known as “Harlequinades” (harlequin being the English word for arlecchino), with stories of magic, chases, acrobatics and love, in which Harlequin would use his “slap stick” to hit scenery as a cue for set changes. By the Victorian era, fairytales, comedy and topical content were woven into the shows, slowly taking the shape of a panto we might recognise today.
The association of pantomime with Christmas and the gender switching of lead roles is believed to have evolved from the Tudor “Feast of Fools”: an unruly event that involved excessive drinking, merrymaking and role reversal, presided over by a “Lord of Misrule”, someone from the servant classes who was appointed to run the Christmas festivities held at court. These included entertainment, processions, plays and feasts. In return, the partygoers would make him laugh.
This tradition is in turn thought to be an evolution of the Roman Saturnalia, a midwinter celebration consisting of at least five days of feasting and partying (why does that sounds vaguely familiar?), during which rules about rank and etiquette were overturned: slaves swapped clothes with their masters who also served them meals, and everyone wore a pileus, a coned “cap of liberty” given to slaves once they were freed. A throw of the dice would determine who would become temporary Saturnalian monarch. In his poem Saturnalia, Lucian of Samosata (120-180 AD) wrote:
“During my week the serious is barred: no business allowed. Drinking and being drunk, noise and games of dice, appointing of kings and feasting of slaves, singing naked, clapping… an occasional ducking of corked faces in icy water – such are the functions over which I preside.” Nude singing could certainly do with being revived – it would liven up many a Christmas work do.
The scriptures don’t mention the time of year in which Jesus was born, let alone the date, but midwinter has been a time for celebration by the masses for millennia. At the core of these rituals is 21 December: the winter solstice and the shortest day of the year. Five thousand years ago, Stonehenge was built so that its tallest stone would align with sunrise on that day. Eagerly anticipated, this pinnacle of the season marked the lengthening of the days leading up to spring and the return of life. Archaeologists have discovered that around that time of year, Neolithic people ate large quantities of beef and pork, drank mead or barley beer from decorated pottery, and ate dairy products like fermented milk and cheese. It’s reassuring to know modern revellers don’t have the monopoly on overindulging!
Midwinter celebrations have always spilled over into January. In Scotland, seeing in the New Year starts at the end of December and lasts for at least three days – Hogmanay. The etymology of the word is disputed (some say Norman, others say Anglo-Saxon or Scandinavian) but it is agreed that the festival’s roots likely date back to Norse and Gaelic customs of marking the winter solstice.
While fireworks are the highlight of the night in cities all over the world, in Edinburgh on 30 December you can revel in a primal torchlight procession and on occasion the burning of a Viking longship.
Most ancient midwinter practices involved tomfoolery, frolicking, feasting and exchanging gifts to mark the beginning of the end of winter. So as we shout out “Oh no you’re not!” from the stalls, tuck in to second helpings, stuff ourselves with a selection of cheeses we only eat at Christmas, and down yet another overly-sweet alcoholic concoction, we’re not just making merry: we’re keeping alive customs that have existed for aeons.
Khaled Bazzi is Art Director at Perspective