|Credit: R. Kennedy for GPTMC|
An unforgettably wild ritual, the parade and subsequent performances are all family-friendly, yet exciting enough to entertain everybody. While a carnival-like atmosphere welcomes anyone who decides to stop by at the last minute, a little advance preparation guarantees a clear view. Better still, spending the night in the city ensures an early start to the day.
Who?:Mummers are men and women of all ages who belong to one of 44 social clubs that make up the organization. The clubs, split into four divisions — Comics, Fancies, String Bands and Fancy Brigades — function mainly to stage their playful performances on New Year’s Day. But Mummers do perform at other events throughout the year, and for many Philadelphia-area families, Mummery is a tradition that spans generations.
What?:The day’s highlight is the parade itself, which begins in South Philadelphia in the morning and winds its way up Broad Street to City Hall approximately eight hours later. Each division knows its role: the Comics, often dressed as wenches, satirize issues, institutions and people; the Fancies impress with their glamorous outfits that rival those of royalty; the String Bands gleefully play banjoes, saxophones and percussion instruments; and the Fancy Brigades produce tightly choreographed theatrical extravaganzas.
But the noisy camaraderie shouldn’t fool the novice spectator, as each club is embroiled in a friendly yet fierce competition for cash prizes (amounts vary year to year), disbursed among the four divisions. The purse is chiefly a pass to brag throughout the year, as it hardly covers the expenses incurred from dressing and preparing for the parade, which ranged from $20,000 to $120,000 per club in 2006.
After they’ve displayed their floats, costumes, dances and music, the Comics, Fancies and String Bands head down to Two Street to spend the rest of the day and night in hearty revelry with the crowds that follow them there. But there’s more work ahead for members of the Fancy Brigades, who put on two elaborate Broadway-style performances for ticket holders at the Pennsylvania Convention Center in the afternoon. The winning club receives a cash prize.
Why?:Mummery traces its roots to ancient Roman laborers who ushered in the festival of Saturnalia by marching in masks while exchanging gifts and satirizing the issues of the day. In the 1600s, Swedish settlers to Philadelphia’s outskirts honored Christmas by beseeching their neighbors for dessert and liquor by dressing up, chanting and shooting firearms.
The party eventually migrated to New Year’s Day and evolved into a series of neighborhood parades; then, as immigrants moved to the area from Ireland and Italy, each group added their own cultural flair to the local customs. In 1901, the tradition began in earnest with the first recognized and judged Mummers Parade. The term “Mummer” is German and means “to costume or masquerade.” (from visitphilly.com)