P. G. White - 2011-12-12
Sure, other American cities have New Year’s festivities and parades, but only Philadelphia has Mummers. An institution whose European roots are centuries old, the Mummers Parade has been sponsored by the city since 1901.
Until recent years, participants were mostly working class men from South Philly - big fellows who worked at construction sites, shipyards or factories and met in secret at ‘New Year’s Clubs’ on and around 2nd street (say ‘Two Street’) to invent outrageous costumes and practice their music and moves months before the big day. Today’s Mummer’s Parade is more democratic - everyone is welcome to participate; clubs range from groups of burly tattooed men in sequins and feathers to politically active neighbourhood associations making their point with good humour. Some clubs have four generations of participants - from little kids to their great-grandfathers - parading together.
The shift in demographics has helped the parade shed its reputation for drunken rowdiness in favour of family-friendly fun. Starting mid-morning on New Year’s Day, wave after wave of musicians, floats and fabulous costumes make their way up Broad Street from South Philly to City Hall where the judges’ stands are located - a journey of over four kilometres. The atmosphere is truly joyful - everyone talks to everyone and some of the clubs hand out gaudy beads and feathers for onlookers to don. Portable toilets have (finally!) been provided and many centre city shops and restaurants are open on New Year’s Day.
Clubs belong to one of several divisions. The Fancies, String Bands and Comics - including the notorious Wenches (motto: ‘the hairier the better’) - are judged at City Hall. The Fancy Brigades, a division with very elaborate sets, costumes and choreography end up at the Convention Center a few blocks away where they compete during four-and-a-half minute mini-musicals for the coveted first prize. The advantage, they say, to doing it this way is that there can be a New Year’s performance come rain or shine (or snow or sleet), and their fabulous sets needn’t withstand extreme weather.
A few days before New Year’s, I visit the Fancy Brigade MummersFest at the Philadelphia Convention Center; the excitement is tangible. Some families are milling about the kid-friendly make-up and costume stands on the floor, others are touring backstage with a veteran guide. I’m in the crowded stands, waiting to see the full rehearsal. Next to me, a dark-haired Mummer wife and mother explains that she drives her three sons to the Mummers’ club on Sunday mornings because she wants them to spend time with their cousins and other guys. There, she says, they forge friendships that will continue their whole lives. I ask her how she feels about having a husband who wears make-up and costumes. ‘You get used to it,’ she laughs, then turns to scream her support as the music begins and her bespangled sons rush out onto stage in an explosive Bollywoodian extravaganza.
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The parade is free of charge.
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