Wednesday, December 30, 2009

New Year's Day with the Mummers

Every New Year’s Day, thousands of Philadelphians, mostly men, don elaborate costumes of sequins, spangles, and feathers. They carry banjos, saxophones, and double-basses to march in one of the most unusual events in the world - Philadelphia’s Mummers Parade.

The quirky parade was officially organized in 1901, but unofficial cultural celebrations were held as far back as the late 17th century. The Mummers are rooted in the city’s ethnic neighborhoods, particularly South Philadelphia. Mummer members are mostly working class:
longshoremen, plumbers, carpenters, electricians, in their everyday lives. But once a year, these blue-collar workers become stars - dancing, strutting, and creating music that lifts an entire city’s spirit.

In today’s Mummer tradition, associations or “clubs” compete in one of four categories of Mummery: the Comics, the Fancies, the Fancy Brigades, and the String Bands. The experience is often a family affair, with many Mummers first marching on Broad Street as children. The parade is built around music and you can expect to hear the Mummers’ signature tunes – the vaudeville-esque “Oh Dem Golden Slippers” and “I’m Looking Over a Four Leaf Clover,” – over and over throughout the day.

The primary mode of Mummer locomotion down the Broad Street, the parade route, is the Mummer “strut.” The strut is a joyful dance where one bounces along in a hop-step, slightly bowed, with arms outstretched (often holding a decorative umbrella!) Picture a man dolled up in sequined cape and pants, who’s thrown his back out and can’t quite stand up straight, bouncing down the street while waving his arms. Hmmm . . this may be one instance where video is worth a thousand of my words.
The marathon parade, which in the past would last 10 or 11 hours, kicks off with the Comics division. The Comics clubs spoof current events and newsmakers during their strut down Broad Street. Also known as the “clowns,” these clubs march to recorded music and perform quick skits to entertain the crowd. Historically women were not part of Mummery, so men would dress in drag to play female roles. Today even though women have joined the ranks, the custom of men dressing as comic “wenches” is still part of the Comic tradition. The Comic strut starts early in the morning, with the result that many clowns are still . . .shall we say. . . feeling the effects of their New Year’s Eve celebration, making for a raucous and enthusiastic performance for the spectators.

The Fancy clubs have elaborate costumes and floats and provide the most dazzling displays to watch. The Fancy Brigades produce 4 or 5 minute Broadway-worthy musical numbers, complete with costumes, props and back drops. They strut only part of the way down Broad Street before heading indoors to the convention center to present two performances for ticket-holders.
Finally, the String Bands arrive for the highlight of the parade. String Bands strut to live music played by their members, all amateurs, on banjos, saxophones, accordions, double-basses, and percussion, combining to create the signature String Band sound. Members wear costumes bedecked with sequins and feathers, often with backpieces that are 6 or more feet in diameter. The heavy costumes can cost hundreds or thousands of dollars apiece. Ornate Captains’ costumes can weigh up to 100 pounds. They also must be seen to be believed, as it is near impossible for written description to convey the spectacle of so many men outfitted in feathers, make-up and swirling capes, performing show tunes with military precision.

The sights and sounds of the Mummers are not limited to January 1st. To raise money for costumes, most clubs play parades and events all year long and participate in SummerMummer concerts at the Mummers Museum. At Philadelphia weddings, bar mitzvahs and other festivities, it is not unusual for the Mummers strut to break out mid-celebration. I must admit that we had the band at our wedding reception play “Oh Dem Golden Slippers” during the dancing, to simultaneously thrill my Philadelphia relatives and baffle my husband’s out of town family.
So while most of the world is nursing a hangover, eating black-eyed peas, or watching the bowl games on New Years Day, we here in the City of Brotherly Love indulge in a day-long folk-music ritual of the best kind. A folk music ritual as interpreted by 10,000 people who put their heart and soul into their show, strutting in a riot of color and glitter and melody - starting the new year off in a celebration unlike that of any other city.

Click here to see a video of the Fralinger club Mummers in action~
Earlier this month, native Philadelphians Michael and Kevin Bacon (“the Bacon Brothers”) played a concert to benefit Philadelphia’s Mummers. Read more about the concert, or order the DVD.


  1. Terrific New Year's post! I urge all readers not to miss a single link. Who knew? Reminds me of Mardi Gras: though, sort of like Ginger Rogers dancing backward with Fred Astaire, these folks are out there carrying on in the freezing cold!

  2. Your piece inspired me to take a closer look at Loreena McKennitt’s lyrics called The Mummers’ Dance. Being a favorite and often played, her Celtic style music and lyrics paint a picture in my mind of new beginnings, gaiety and ghosts. She never mentions the word Mummers in her poetry.

    It wasn’t until today that I looked up the meaning of Mummer and am surprised to learn that a mummer is a mime, not a mummy which led me to visualize dancing ghosts. Living in Eugene Oregon long ago and knowing a mime or two, I am not sure how this fact got by me.

    I love your imagery of this event and hope someday to see it live in Philadelphia! I look forward to listening to Mummer’s Dance with an informed mind’s eye. Thank you!


  3. Such a great tradition, and a fascinating description. They played at your wedding? Must have been a great party!

    I was really interested to learn about something that I have never heard of until now. It reminds me of the Coon Carnival (recently renamed the Cape Town Minstrel Carnival) held in Cape Town on the 2nd of January every year. I thought it was such a unique tradition, yet it's amazingly similar.

  4. Happy 2010! Sue... great post... -Elaine

  5. Thanks, Elaine, for the New Year's greetings. Just for the record: all kudos for the post go to Wide Open Spaces.

  6. Thanks for the comments . . .

    jms: I kept coming across Loreena's Mummer's Dance while researching my piece - I never knew about her music before this. It was very haunting to listen to (and completely unlike the Phila Mummers, to say the least).

    Carol-Ann: Just to clarify, we did not have actual Mummers at our wedding (although I am sure many South Philadelphians do!) but the band either played a Mummers song, or perhaps put a CD of one on the sound system. The juxtaposition of happiness on my dad's face as he struts at his daughter's wedding, and horror on my new father-in-law's face is priceless.

    I will have to look up the Cape Town Minstrel Carnival - many of the Mummer traditions have roots in minstrel shows ( I opted to leave that bit out of my story~ :) )

  7. Celtic music often tends to be haunting which may be why I interpreted Loreena’s title to be a song about ghosts. Yesterday, I viewed a clip from the Mummers Parade 2010 as well as the link on your blog and the music certainly sounds more upbeat than the Celtic style of McKennitt. Nonetheless, my comment was intended to recognize the definition of Mummer and to extend my appreciation to you for an introduction to such a colorful event :-)


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