I grew up outside Philadelphia and attended college in the City of Brotherly Love, so watching the city’s annual Mummers Parade was as much a part of my family’s New Year’s Day festivities as pork and sauerkraut. That’s why I was dismayed to learn from Joel Rose on NPR’s Morning Edition that the parade may be threatened by the city’s budget woes. Because of its shortfalls, the city wants the Mummers to pay for the policing and sanitation services needed to support the parade. They’ve started a campaign, Save The Mummers, to help raise funds and keep the parade running.
Mummery traces its origins back to 400 BC and the Roman festival of Saturnalia, during which laborers marched in masks and exchanged gifts. It evolved over the ages in Europe into a mix of Celtic trick or treat and Druidic noise making meant to drive out demons trying to spoil the New Year. As immigrants arrived in Philadelphia, so did this eclectic tradition whose name means “to mime” in German. Rowdy “parading” on New Year’s Day is reported in Philly even before the American Revolution. By the late 1800s, local merchants offered prizes for costumes and music. The first official parade was held in 1901. Today, there are over 10,000 garishly costumed mummers from 44 social clubs, some of which satirize current social issues, while others simply make music and strut and strum in the New Year.
I got in touch with Joe Leso, publicity director of the Philadelphia Mummers String Band Association, to learn more about the oldest continually running folk parade in the U.S.
There are five divisions of Mummers. Which is the crowd’s favorite?
As far as the crowd favorite, I would have to say string bands. The largest crowds on Broad Street and the highest ratings for the parade on television occur when the String Band Division is performing. In fact, three hours of the parade are broadcast nationally on the WGN Superstation Network out of Chicago and these three hours are scheduled when the String Bands are performing. Also, the String Bands have their own distinctive sound. It’s the only division of the parade whose performers play instruments.
The parade starts in South Philly and follows Broad Street to City Hall. Where are some of the best spots to watch the parade?
The best location to view the parade is in South Philadelphia at Marconi Plaza. This is where the String Bands assemble and where there are some great photo opportunities. Other excellent viewing locations along Broad Street are at Broad and Oregon, Broad and Shunk, in front of Methodist Hospital, at Washington Avenue, in front of the Union League and, of course, at City Hall where tickets for the reviewing stand are available for purchase from the City’s Department of Recreation.
Who judges the performers and on what criteria?
For the string band division, professional judges are hired by the City of Philadelphia. The judges are professional musicians, arrangers or teachers, professional dancers and choreographers, and judges from the art and fashion world. The emphasis for the string bands is music, with great attention paid to the presentation of its theme and costuming.
Can anyone become a mummer? Must you live in the Philadelphia area?
Anyone can become a mummer, however, because it is a year-round hobby, the vast majority of mummers live in Philadelphia and its surrounding suburbs.
I read that it can cost between $20,000-120,000 for a club to dress and prep for the parade. Do mummers spend a lot of their own money on their costumes?
For the string bands, the revenue that we generate in performance fees for appearing in parades and concerts throughout the country accounts for the majority of the funds needed to present the band in the following year’s Mummers Parade. Nearly every string band conducts various fundraisers throughout the course of the year.
I heard George Beatty of Save the Mummers say on the NPR story that the Mummers bring the city’s economy $9 million. Is this annually?
Last year the Mummers Association commissioned an independent economic impact study that reported that the parade did generate in excess of nine million dollars in revenue to the City of Philadelphia. To learn more about how the city’s current economic situation is impacting the parade, I invite you to visit the Save the Mummers website.
Getting There: For nuts and bolts on the day-long event and info on traveling to Philly, check out the official Greater Philadelphia Visitors Guide. If you can’t make it to Philly this year to see the Mummers in all their glory, check out the Mummers Channel on YouTube.
Photos: R. Kennedy for GPTMC