In Britain, I found the Christmas season to be quite magical. No, I didn't mis-spell maniacal. It's not because this is the home of A Christmas Carol and Love, Actually. It's because I experienced all these new traditions for the first time, like a child would.
For most, remembering childhood Christmas still gives one the 'good feels'. Those images in my head are glossy, sentimental and romantic. Presents, music, family and special food. The sights, sounds and smells from those Christmases past are as fresh as though they happened yesterday.
To be clear, I didn't exactly relive the Christmases of my youth. But I did experience some of those happy feelings. I am not a Christmas hater, but I do think I have become a bit more cynical towards the gross marketing of the whole season (Lexus' December to Remember tops my vomit-inducing list). Let's just say, my new experiences would quiet my inner snark and recapture a little bit of that innocence.
One of those experiences was Pantomime. A great tradition of the British holiday season, Pantomime has a long theatrical history dating back to 16th century Italy. It became distinctly English entertainment by 18th century, first known as harlequinade and then evolving into Pantomime- named because the early performances were mostly visual, consisting of dancing and gestures.
Panto, as it's informally referred, is a theatre production involving music, slapstick comedy and mild sexual innuendo, with a story based loosely on a fairy tale. The hallmarks of modern panto include:
- A male lead character played by a young woman
- An older female character (the grand dame) played by a middle-aged man in drag
- Audience participation, mainly in the form of two phrases: 'Look behind you!' and 'Oh, yes it is!/Oh, no it isn't!'
It's truly a holiday tradition, especially for children. I overheard colleagues discussing it at work and decided to check it out for myself. I enlisted the help of a few friends who were all-too-happy to show me the ropes.
We met at the Key Theatre in Peterborough and had a cocktail before the performance to get us in the spirit. The production was re-interpretation of Mother Goose with the plot focused on the goose that lays the golden eggs.
I was surprised how spirited the audience was. They knew their role and were ready to play it. It was loud but I couldn’t help but smile- the participation of the children in the audience saying ‘Oh, yes it is!’ was impossibly cute. The over-the-top performance of the grand dame was comical with just the right amount of innuendo. As is the hallmark of the British, the fast-paced insults were brilliant, with local towns a frequent target.
It was over before we knew it and I was officially a fan.
Music is a big part of the Christmas season in the UK. I’ve always been amused by the story line in Love, Actually where the washed up rocker attempts his big comeback by releasing a Christmas single. This is something that really does happen here.
Christmas songs often become super hits and no holiday season is complete without them. Songs like Wham’s 'Last Christmas', and Mariah Carey’s ‘All I Want for Christmas Is You’ are classics. I'm pretty sure Mariah could probably run for office in the UK and win.
Despite having what I consider to be a fair amount of music knowledge, we spent one Christmas watching a music video marathon and watched in disbelief as song after song played that we never heard of before.
Two really stand out to me.
1) Cliff Richard's 'Mistletoe and Wine'. Cliff Richard is a national treasure. I was barely familiar with him (Devil Woman, anyone?) but in Britain he is major music celebrity. Have a look in this You Tube video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b7lKKNrXUJg
2) Wizzard's 'I Wish it Could be Christmas Everyday'. When I mentioned this song and that a) I was creeped out by the video and b) shocked it brought warm fuzzies to the British people, my friends were incredulous in their responses. 'Oh, but that is a classic!' they protested. See for yourself:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZoxQ4Ul_DME
I'm still creeped out by the video, but have warmed to the tune.
We experienced many other new traditions, including Christmas markets (though the smell of mulled wine has scarred me for life), Christmas crackers (you pull with a friend until it pops, then you place a paper hat on your head and read a bad joke), Christmas pudding (a heavy spice cake you boil until heated and then serve with custard) and Boxing Day (UK holiday the day after Christmas) horse races with good friends.
It was an eventful time with so many new memories but the one that really sticks to me is last Christmas. I vividly remember sitting on the floor in the living room with the fireplace roaring, music videos softly playing, a paper hat on my head and a bowl of Christmas pudding in hand. Perry was petting the cat and wrapping paper surrounded him.
We looked at each other and laughed at our good fortune. It was a glossy, sentimental and romantic moment.
It was Christmas.