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Think of them as fairy tale drag shows.

During the holiday season the Brits go crazy for pantomimes, or pantos, for short.

These should not be confused with mime, or pantomime, artists who silently act out stories with body motion. Pantos are musical comedies based on classic — usually European — stories such as "Goldilocks and the Three Bears" or "Dick Whittington," a 17th-century tale of a downtrodden kid who travels through London with his cat.

Conventions of the performance traditionally hold that the central male character is played by a young woman donning tight-fitting male garments that reveal her female form. The hero’s mother is usually played by a man dressed as a woman who is known as the pantomime dame.

Far from a raunchy nightclub drag show, pantos are family-friendly theater. The Brits consider the tongue-in-cheek performances suitable for children though the shows are also geared to adults. In theory, the risqué double entendres that pepper perfectly innocent phrases are meant to go over the kids’ heads. (Right.)

A panto is like the cheeky British equivalent of "The Nutcracker," a popular Christmastime performance in the States. The lighthearted performances that often call on audience participation, such as booing the villain, take place on stages throughout the United Kingdom into the new year.

Pantomime performances date to ancient Greece, according to the Web sites Britishpanto.org and Musictalk.co.uk. They were brought to England as a low-brow form of opera and rose to popularity in the current British tradition in the early 19th century.

Pantos are also popular in Australia, Ireland, Canada, Jamaica, South Africa, New Zealand and Zimbabwe.

Got a question about something you’ve seen or heard around the United Kingdom?

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