Merry Crossdressing! It's Panto!

Greetings America. 'Tis the season to be jolly.

What? In January? I thought we did all that weeks ago – with Santa and the snowman, and Christmas and Hanukkah, and the rest.

Yes, we did. But I'm speaking to you from England where there is one Yuletide tradition that carries on throughout the country throughout January. In many places it extends to February. In some it goes on until March. I speak of Christmas pantomime.

Pantomime – or panto as it's often known for short – is a truly bizarre form of theatrical entertainment that really is unique to the British Isles. It's a family show – a play with music and dancing, comedy, slapstick, traditional routines and topical gags – based around characters from a fairy tale or nursery rhyme, and it is put on in theatres the length and breadth of the country. So popular is it that many theatres have two performances a day – some even have three – and it's why January is the one month in the year when theatres know they can make money.

Panto has to have certain essential ingredients or it isn't proper panto. For a start it has to have men dressed as women – not as glamorous women, as ridiculous women. This isn't "La Cage aux Folles." This is "Cinderella" where the heroine has two ugly sisters played by guys, or "Aladdin" where the hero has a fat mother played by a fat middle aged English comedian. Next, the hero – the male hero that is – is often played by a girl dressed as a boy.

This is a panto tradition that dates back to Victorian times when the only opportunity a respectable gentleman got to see a good-looking young woman's legs was when she was wearing tights to play the principal boy in pantomime. Men dressed as women, women dressed as men, humans dressed as animals, audience participation, very old gags, brand new pop songs, plots based on fairy tales where good always conquers evil and everybody knows how the story will end before it even starts – there is nothing quite like it in any country in the world except this one. Panto is Britain's unique contribution to world culture.

By Gyles Brandreth