Unless you are from around Philly, it’s unlikely you’ve heard of the Mummer’s Parade. If you associate anything with the word mummer, you may think some kind of British ritual, or Mardi Gras performer. For those unlucky enough not to have witnessed the New Year’s Day annual event, I feel sorry for you. The mummers are a unique experience, a combination marching band, mini variety show, and Ziegfeld Follies costumed extravaganza. The lengthy parade begins with what are loosely called Comics–men dressed up in various outfits carrying umbrellas weaving down the street, staggering because they are usually drunk. This is not a part of the parade I enjoy or am proud of, and if ‘tradition’ didn’t exist, the entire thing would disappear like bad booze down the drain. The second part of the parade is the Fancies competition. Whoops, I forgot to mention theparade not only entertains thousands along the Philly streets, but is a competition among distinct ‘brigades’ as they are named. The Fancies are elaborate costumed individuals with live music, but not string bands. Next, and the most popular, are the String Bands. They strut down the street playing banjos and other instruments to a theme–and act out a little storyline for the judges and audience at the designated spot. Their costumes are breathtaking, the choreography amazing, sets astounding, and presentations magnificent. The top string bands can spend hundreds of thousands of dollars for their minutes in the spotlight, and they have to pay for all of it themselves. They hold fundraisers, play at weddings, Fourth of July gatherings, and Atlantic City extravaganzas to raise enough dough to pay costume, set designers, seamstresses, etc. The prize money, if they are lucky enough to win, doesn’t cover all these expenses.
It wasn’t always this way. When I was a kid, the brigades’ poor wives were given the task of creating all of the costumes their menfolk wore. Up until the 1970s, women were forbidden to participate as mummers. There are still very few females among the various groups. Made up almost exclusively of Eastern Europeans, the history of this longest running folk parade in the US isn’t very respectable. Swedes and Finns started roving the Philly streets yelling and shooting guns off around Christmas, all the way up to New Years–and recited poems for booze. See? Tradition! This kept up, more ethnic groups joined in, costumes were added, clubs were established and the first official parade was held in 1901. My mother grew up around the Kensington area of Philly, and that means she’s a diehard Ferko String Band fan. According to my mother, Ferko owned a drugstore. They were organized mid 1920s and have been a major contender for years. The last part takes place inside and is called the Fancy Brigades. I don’t understand what this part of the festivities is about. Originally part of the Fancies, as it grew and props, costumes and routines became bigger and more complicated, it was decided they would be better suited indoors, which means they are not really part of a parade. What they do, well, I just don’t know. A cross between dance, light show, marching in time? Impressive when seen, I just have no idea how this part evolved from mummers.
It’s difficult to give anyone who has not experienced a mummer string band a real picture of how unique and fabulous viewing and listening to them is. So, being the kind generous individual that I am, I researched some books one can buy or get from your local library to supply you with the best understanding you can get, outside of some short You Tube flicks, or being in Philly.
Life Liberty, and the Mummers, by Ed Kennedy is a large coffee table book with glossy photos.
The Philadelphia Mummers: Building Community Through Play by Patricia Masters–is a more detailed look at how this parade and its participants add to the Philadelphia community
Oh Dem Golden Slippers, The Story of the Philadelphia Mummers by Charles E. Welch–is one of the first books to write about this tradition, and is apparently out of print, but you know bookfinder.com or ABE.com can certainly dig one up for you–the title is referring to the Mummers signature tune–Oh, Dem Golden Slippers written by an African American back in the 1800s.
The Mummer’s Curse, An Amanda Pepper Mystery, by Gillian Roberts–this book is a particular favorite of mine–Ms. Roberts entire series set in Philly has been a fav for years. Amanda is a teacher at a Philly prep school. While watching the parade, one of the participants falls dead and a fellow teacher is the main suspect.
If any one is interested in watching the parade online–here is the link–but I would advise you wait until the string bands play to get the real feel of The Mummer’s Parade.