Many American families have a tradition of taking their children to see the ballet at Christmas. The Nutcracker is hugely popular. And surely the little ones enjoy the magic of it all, the beauty of the dancing and music, the fun of sitting still in their seats for an evening watching others dance, the joy of not being allowed to talk let alone shout. Sure, what child wouldn’t leap at that opportunity?
In Ireland, we have a slightly different take on family entertainment at Christmas. The panto. That’s short for pantomime, but the reality is joyful pandemonium. Sit quietly in their seats for how long? Stuff that. Irish children go to the panto and shout and roar and jump up and down howling with laughter. Booing is completely acceptable.
What is this madness exactly? The roots of the Irish Christmas panto stretch back more than a hundred years. (It’s also a tradition in Great Britain.) The panto is usually based on a classic fairy tale; Cinderella and Aladdin are popular ones. But in the panto version, humor rules. Slapstick, cross dressing and asides to the audience are essentials, and pies in the face are often part of the fun.
Festive and Feisty Audience Participation
It would be downright weird for little kids to sit quietly watching this hilarious mayhem. The panto is all about kids being kids and having a great time. They’re working so hard this time of year to stay on Santa’s good list, and it isn’t easy to wait for those toys and candies to arrive. A chance to blow off some steam and go crazy is exactly the thing to help the whole family stay sane, and with Ireland’s winter weather, the advantage of an indoor opportunity to go wild is obvious. The panto arrived more than a hundred years before the bouncy play place, and it’s easy to see why generations of Irish parents have embraced this tradition.
The Gaiety Theatre in Dublin is probably the most famous panto venue in the country, but you’ll find pantos performed all over the country in towns both small and large. There is often one well known personality in the cast, which can include children and adults. No matter how sophisticated the venue, most pantos have a charming DIY quality. It just wouldn’t be a Christmas panto if it were slick and professional. The joy of it comes from the goofy antics that just might slide out of control at any minute. This isn’t the type of performance where it is critical for the actors to stay in character.
The ballet is a fine thing for children to experience, and many will find it enthralling and magical. But it has nothing on an Irish Christmas panto for pure fun and laughs. Parents might love the panto even more than children do. How often do we get to sit back and relax in public while they bounce around shouting, screaming, booing, laughing and generally acting like maniacs?