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What are the origins of the Christmas pantomime?

This staple of the typical British Christmas has its roots in Italian comedy and Georgian snobbery

Princess Elizabeth (the future Queen Elizabeth II) and Princess Margaret as Prince Charming and Cinderella in a 1941 pantomime
Published: December 2, 2020 at 2:47 pm
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The peculiarly English-born Christmas pantomime has its beginnings in the 18th century. In the 1720s, entertainments heavily influenced by the Italian commedia dell’arte became increasingly popular thanks to their crowd-pleasing mix of humour, mime, spectacle and dance.


Disliking the genre but unwilling to forego the profits, in the 1750s actor and theatre manager David Garrick limited pantomime performances in Drury Lane to the festive season. By the early 19th century, these ‘grotesque performances’ were a well-established part of Christmas.

The Victorian era saw harlequinade characters replaced by the cross-dressing dame and principal boy, and Italian-inspired tales supplanted by English folklore, but the association with Christmas remains as strong as ever. (Oh yes it does!)


This Q&A, answered by historian Emily Brand, first appeared in the Christmas 2014 issue of BBC History Revealed


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