(Note: this day is dedicated to John Sewell (the one in England. I have two…), in thanks for letting me bug him about cultural topics. And for not having me assassinated for calling him Johnny Seaweed. Thanks, John, for great musical introductions, superfluous “u”‘s, and tolerance. Happy Christmas.)
1. The Ashen Faggot
Yes, you can say it out loud; it’s a real thing. Wassailers(think “drunk carolers”) carry around a bundle of sticks from an ash tree, which is ceremoniously tossed into the fire. When one of the willow stems that bind the sticks burns and pops? Drink! Nothing says “Happy Birthday, Jesus” like fortified cider punch and fire.
Some parts of England add the tradition of the unmarried female wassailers picking their own binding stem, and the first one to break would portend the marriage for that person next year. Relying on flaming faggots for marriage ended as a practice in the United States with the death of Elizabeth Taylor. RIP.
2. “Father Christmas”
I like “Father Christmas” better than “Santa Claus”. Thinner. Green suit instead of red. More of a bussengeist of good tidings than a kid’s toy dealer– think The Most Interesting Man In The Christmas Card, not Ronald McDonald(also: if you know what a bussengeist is, you are either the American John Sewell or some 30-35 year-old dork like me). And, let us not forget…
I had no idea that this was a tradition, but John(Seaweed, not American John) assured me that it was true, and he assured me that it is truly “foregin” feeling to non-Brits. He’s right.
Imagine a community theater doing Humpty Dumpty for kids. Then camp up the costumes. Then replace the small time actors with professional ones who are festively drunk. Then add some adultish humor. Then kick out the kids and do the whole play in a pub. Happy Christmas!
4. The Doctor Who Christmas Special
Doctor Who. Charity for kids. Baby Jesus. The end.
5. The Kate Bush Christmas Special
There are plenty of variety-show type Christmas shows of British origin to choose from, but none so strange and impactful as this one. Made in 1979, it has the just plain odd feel you would expect from Kate Bush. There’s strange costumes and complicated arraignments. There’s a cello with arms and legs waking up from a nap. Wait, we’re in Egypt! Now back to the breakfast nook, where an ennui-stricken couple gets contemplative over tea; that couple is Kate Bush and Peter Gabriel. Completely original and weird.
Ok, maybe this isn’t a tradition per se. The variety show format for Christmas is. I mainly wanted to bring this up because it is truly awesome and to send out this fair warning: FLORENCE AND THE MACHINE, STEP YOUR GAME UP. KATE BUSH PAVED THE WAY FOR YOU WITH THE CHOREOGRAPHED AND THE BIZARRE. SIMPLY COVERING “LAST CHRISTMAS” WILL NOT SUFFICE; THAT TWAT TAYLOR SWIFT EVEN DID A COVER. IT’S YOUR MOVE. MAKE BABY JESUS PROUD.
4 thoughts on “The Pirate George Advent Calendar: Day Thirteen – Gimme 5: British Christmas Traditions”
Panto is quite a complex subject, but it’s definitely a part of the UK Christmas tradition – theatres in every major town and city will have star-studded professional pantos running throughout the season, and in smaller towns, most local am-dram societies will stage one. Big or small scale though, the basic conventions remain the same:
1: The “Prinicpal Boy”, or hero, is played by a young woman, usually wearing a costume which makes no attempt to disguise her gender, and often accentuates it. The heroine is also played by a young woman, and they will usually be wed, or about to wed, at the panto’s end.
2: The “Dame”, often the Principal Boy’s mother, is played by a middle-aged man in drag. Many top comic actors fulfil this role in the larger scale productions. The Dame serves as the main comic relief, and often handles the more risque jokes for the adult audience (and which usually go straight over the heads of the children.)
3. A child-like “village idiot” character, with a name like “Simple Simon”, “Silly Billy” etc. He is the main audience figure for the children, leading the singalongs and providing slapstick comedy. He also sometimes has an unrequieted love for the heroine, or more commonly the Dame.
4. A snarling, eminently booable villain, who can be of either sex, and in professional panto is usually played by one of the two or three major stars of the production (often mirroring villainous characters the actor has played on TV.)
5. A loose script, with the cast throwing in improvised asides, and much audience interaction; “He’s behind you!” “Oh no it isn’t!” etc. Pantos are self-aware, with most of the characters seeming to know that they are in a play (One of the first ones I can remember going to had the villainous evil baron threatening the audience: “Shut up, or I’ll poison all your ice creams in the interval!” Often, topical references from the news will be included, and currently popular songs will be sung by cast and audience alike.
6. Very much family affairs, or billed as “for children of all ages.” The odious comedian Jim Davidson has written and starred in adult pantos with nudity and crude humour, but most, despite a surfeit of innuendo, are intended for all,
With me so far? To be fair, some Americans seem to “get” panto – one regular in UK productions is noted Anglophile George “Mr Sulu” Takei, and actors as diverse as Gillan Anderson out of the X Files and Henry “Fonzie” Winkler have also taken part. Perhaps it’s best to view it as part of the same tradition as Carry On movies and Benny Hill (or even Monty Python, especially when they dressed up as women!) with a bit of medieval mummers plays thrown in for good measure!
It’s a bummer that we (Americans) have few “live” events during the holidays that don’t revolve around food; school pageants and church pageants, mainly. I would gladly trade a Panto for either.
I think Liza could still give Liz a run for the money.
And thanks for the detailed treatise on panto, Seaweed!