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Pantos: The English Tradition of Celebrating Christmas With Double Entendres and Cross-Dressing

It's fun for the whole family!

Henry Winkler as Captain Hook at Richmond Theatre.

While Americans are donning their Sunday best and heading to Radio City for the "warmth, joy and good will" of the Christmas Spectacular, the English are throwing on a pair of Wellies and making their way to shows with titles like Dick Whittington or even Dick Comes Again.

Britain's favorite theatrical Christmas tradition is pantomime: a slapstick-driven event that follows certain structural (a man dressed in matronly drag, for instance) and sylistic (lots and lots of double entendre) rules. These productions are usually meant to be family-friendly, and most often the stories are familiar children's tales like Cinderella or Aladdin, while the jokes are aimed more at the dirty-minded adult crowd.

In England, the Panto is such a big deal that it's not uncommon for big-name stars to attach themselves to one of these bawdy spectacles. This season, for instance, both Henry Winkler and David Hasselhoff will be playing Peter Pan's Captain Hook in versions of the beloved children's story about a boy who refuses to grow up (how appropriate for the genre). And even current Broadway star and sometime X-Men villain Sir Ian McKellen (No Man's Land and Waiting for Godot) recently graced the Panto stage in the role of Dame Twankey in Aladdin at the Old Vic. For a roundup of other celebs who will be donning the wigs and rougy cheeks of Panto this holiday season, complete with pictures, visit

If you ask several Christmas-loving English people, "Why Panto?," you're likely to get a slew of different answers. Of course, some just love the low-minded humor, but others argue that there are moral lessons to celebrate and comfort to be found in the tropes.

For more on Panto, check out WhatsOnStage's Ultimate Guide to Pantomime.