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Uniquely Philadelphian, the Mummers put on a spectacle that is not to be missed. Every new Year’s Day upwards of 10,000 Mummers march from their haunts on Two Street (2nd Street to the rest of the world) and head up Broad Street to City Hall. As if the sheer size of the throng weren’t enough, the marchers beguile the crowds lining the streets with incredible costumes, their own unique musical style, and engaging skits, some of which are the equal of a Broadway extravaganza.
At first blush, the Mummers Parade may seem like merely an exercise in insanity. It is not. While there is certainly a pinch of craziness thrown into the mix, there is so much more to the event that is often overlooked. As a starting point, the simplest description of Mummers is that they are costumed entertainers celebrating the New Year. Their heritage extends back to the Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians, but is most firmly rooted in the traditions of Northern Europe. Although there is little in the way of a written record detailing the origins of the Mummers in Philadelphia, it is commonly believed that they grew out of the traditions of Swedes living south of Philadelphia proper in the mid-1600’s. During the week between Christmas and New Years they would visit their neighbors while singing and shooting off their muskets as part of the holiday festivities. Thus, they became known as the “New Year’s Shooters” and this tradition was expanded with the integration of English mummer plays and the Irish variants, as well as aspects of the German Belasnickel celebration as Philadelphia grew with the arrival of new immigrants.
By today’s standards, the shenanigans of old would seem quite tame, but it was none-the-less quite upsetting for the pious of the time. Numerous attempts were made throughout the years to halt the practice and a variety of laws were passed to ban masquerading in the streets “to guard against whatever could tempt the people to frivolity, wantonness, insolence, audacity, ungodliness, and scandalous living”. From 1682 to 1807, the various laws were largely ignored and the revelry continued to grow. However, they must have really ticked somebody off because in 1808 the Anti-Masquerade Act was passed that imposed prison time as well as life altering fines for anyone convicted of even being present at a masquerade. Although there are no records of arrests under the Anti-Masquerade Law until it was repelled in 1859, there are also no records of Mummer-like activities during this period.
The post-Civil War era saw huge growth in both the number and organization of Mummer clubs. They were a major feature of Philadelphia’s Centennial Celebration in 1876 and by 1890 there were more than 200 clubs parading about throughout Philadelphia. The turn of the century celebrations presented a unique opportunity to organize the various parades into a single blockbuster event and thus on January 1, 1901, the first organized Mummers Parade took place.
Over the years, the Mummers Parade has survived wars, snow, rain, depressions, recessions, and seemingly constant battles with the city. The durability of the Mummers can be traced to their importance as a social construct woven into the very fiber of South Philadelphia. The Mummers are organized into a variety of clubs that focus on and compete in one of four divisions; the Comics, the Fancies, the String Bands, and the Fancy Brigades. The clubs are tightly knit, second family units that serve as important social support systems. Though the parade is but once a year, being a Mummer is a year-round commitment and one that often sees the children following the parents into the fold. Ask just about any Mummer what the most important aspect of being a Mummer is and without any hesitation the answer will be “family.”
The parade itself is an all day event. Efforts to shorten it over the years have met with some success but the gaiety still begins early in the morning along Mummers Row and the after parade celebrations continue well into the night. The current parade route starts at Washington Ave. and runs north along Broad Street to City Hall. The Comics, Fancies, and String Bands march along this route while the Fancy Brigades have moved inside and put on two shows at the Philadelphia Convention Center (a family show at 12:00 PM and the judged finale at 5:00 PM) that is not to be missed.
The Comics live up to their name and nothing is off-limits to their satirical skills. If you like clowns and clowning around, these are your kind of people. The very politically incorrect Wench Brigades, which have been part of the Comics for years, are moving off on their own but remain basically a guy in a silly dress and then going downhill from there. The Fancies provide a counterpoint to the hairy legs that dominate the Wenches and the costumes are truly things of beauty and great workmanship. Floats accompany the elaborately decked out marchers and provide a visually stunning aspect to the parade. Where the Fancies are a feast for the eyes, the String Bands provide a feast of plenty for the ears. No professional musicians are allowed but you wouldn’t know it from the quality of the performances. Their unique “Mummer Sound” is accompanied by beautiful costumes and the drill team precision of carefully choreographed performances that last four and a half minutes.
The same four and a half minute time limit applies to the performances of the Fancy Brigade Division. These performances now take place indoors and have reached an almost unimaginable level of sophistication. These are neighborhood folks staging dance routines that are worthy of Broadway – with better scenery! Most people never see what goes on behind the scenes, but if they had that opportunity they would be truly amazed. Multi-stage backdrops that rise 25 feet or more into the air are the norm, and each is seemingly more elaborate than the next. These backdrops support dancers in costumes that are mind boggling in their complexity and diversity.
No where does the true cost of preparing for the Mummers Parade become more apparent than watching the Fancy Brigades. It takes very serious money to put on these shows. The cost to stage the Fancy Brigades appears to be a closely guarded secret, but the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that it takes about $120,000 to put the Fralinger String Band on the street each year. And this is just one of the 18 bands that participate! The various clubs support themselves with prize money from the City (dwindling,) and corporate sponsors, as well as by doing shows and engaging in year-round fundraising.
While the crowds in the Convention Center are generally quite civilized, the same cannot always be said of those out on the streets. Things can get a tad rowdy at times as some folks continue with and extend their New Year’s Eve partying. Although there is a significant police presence, public drinking seems to be tolerated as long as things don’t get too out of control. By and large, things do stay within the boundaries of controlled chaos and it makes the Mummers Parade both a truly unique event and a Treasure of Pennsylvania.
I would like to give a special “thank you” to Rocco for allowing me the access that enabled me to create these images as well as to see what goes on behind the scenes. It was a fascinating experience and I am most appreciative!