Convivialities: The Philadelphia Mummer’s Parade

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Happy 2018! I hope you had a wonderful holiday season and are either relaxing before returning to the daily grind tomorrow, or are doing something special.

1892 illustration of New Year’s celebrations that predated the first Mummers Parade. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)

I am currently in my sweatpants, wrapped up in a blanket with my dog all snuggled in with me. My knitting is within arm’s reach, and the annual Mummer’s Parade is on my TV. It wouldn’t surprise me if you’ve never heard of the Mummer’s Parade. It’s a parade distinctly unique to Philadelphia. If you have never seen it, most of the parade resembles a bunch of drunk cross-dressers running down Broad Street whooping and hollering. And actually, you wouldn’t be too far from the origins of the parade.

Claiming the title of the oldest folk parade in the US, the Mummer’s Parade blends elements of various European heritages, but most notably the Swedes and Finns who were the first European colonists in the Philadelphia area. They brought the tradition of visiting neighbors with them, which eventually extended through New Year’s Day. The term “Mummer” is derived from the Mummer’s plays performed in Philadephia as part of working class street celebrations around Christmas. Eventually the two traditions blended, with men dressing in costumes and performing adaptations of the English Mummer’s play loudly through the city. According to the Philadelphia Public Ledger, on New Year’s Day in 1876 men in costumes staged impromptu parades through the city. They were loud and unruly, going door to door shouting, firing weapons into the air, and often stopping outside of bars demanding drinks.  There was an appointed “speech director” who performed a special dance and rhyme:

Here we stand before your door,
As we stood the year before;

Give us whiskey; give us gin,
Open the door and let us in.
Or give us something nice and hot
Like a steaming hot bowl of pepper pot!

1924 postcard of an unidentified mummer in a typical wench costume. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)

(There’s that pepper pot soup that I love so much!) By the 1880s it got to be too much for law enforcement and after about 50 years of unsuccessful attempts at suppressing the demonstrations, city government began to require participants to join organized groups with designated leaders. They had to apply for permits and the group leaders were responsible for the actions of their group. By 1900, the groups formed a city-sanctioned parade with cash prizes for the best performances, and the first official parade was held January 1, 1901.

Over the years the groups organized into “clubs” specializing in one of five categories:

  1. The comic division (comics) – focused on satire and clowning
  2. The wench brigade division (wenches) – emphasizing a traditional, burlesque style of female impersonation
  3. The string band division (string bands) – featuring live music by large ensembles of banjoes and brass
  4. The fancy club division (fancies) – elaborate costume design
  5. The fancy brigade division (fancy brigades) – concentration on Broadway-style staging and choreography
The Mummer’s Museum in Philadelphia.

While women had long worked behind the scenes of the parade, it wasn’t until 1970 that women officially were admitted into mummers clubs as performers. Before that, women were mostly stitching costumes, making food and applying makeup on the male performers. The only known exception was reporter Laura Lee who snuck into the parade disguised as a man in 1929. There are however believed to have been other women who secretly paraded, including a woman banjo player who paraded with her father’s club in 1959. In 1982 the first female string band captain paraded. The first women ever included in the Mummers Hall of Fame were inducted in 2011. In 2017 two women were the first ever female drumming duo to parade.

Today, the Mummer’s Parade literally lasts all day. I’ll break away to watch the Rose Bowl parade, and maybe I’ll go catch the last day of the Christmas display at one of the local historical house museums, but my TV and/or DVD is glued the day to the Mummers. Growing up in South Jersey, we were heavily influenced by Philadelphia culture and it was always on.

So happy New Year to you, I hope it is a very happy, healthy, and prosperous one. Stay tuned this year for many exciting posts


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