Only in Philly: The Mummers Parade
What do you get when you combine one part cross-dressing, one part parade, one part performance art, one part Italian and Irish Philadelphians, and one very large serving of alcohol? The Mummers Parade of course!
Every January 1 in Philadelphia for years and years, hundreds of men get together, wear elaborate costumes, and parade through the streets like Mardi Gras and Carnivale in 10 degree weather. It’s really an experience worth having, and I’m so glad my husband & I could join in the chaos a few years ago.
I’m posting this today because everyone on the East Coast needs a little sunshine in the middle of this blizzard. Also, it’s fun to look at where I live as a tourist sometimes. There’s a lot of joy to be had right where you live! If you’ve never been to the Mummers, stash this post away in your memory and consider going in 2019.
While I was working on earning my teaching certificate, I took an Anthropology class taught by a professor from California who had married a native Philadelphian. She was surprised and curious about the annual Mummers Parade and took her notebook with her to study the chaos. Our final project in class was a paper looking at the Mummers from an anthropological lens. At the time, the assignment included watching a documentary about the Mummers.
As I studied the film, I became really interested in how the Mummers function in Philadelphia, the reasons behind the dedication to this event by so many Philadelphians, and why this whole thing happens the way it happens every year. There isn’t a ton of academic literature on events of this kind. The history is also pretty apocryphal. Some say it started with George Washington and his friends being hooligans over the Christmas holidays. Some accounts trace the parade back to “the old country” in Ireland with all the noise and celebration chasing away evil spirits from the year ahead. With so many participants, so many years, and so much alcohol, it can be difficult to pinpoint the exact origin of this celebration.
After working for hours and hours on this project, of course I had to make plans to see this in person! I asked a few of my friends in the ‘burbs whether they were attending the Mummers that January. Almost universally, I saw a look of shock and disgust and a resounding, “No! Of course not!” Then I would ask if they had ever been. The answer? “No! Of course not!” These were lifelong residents of the greater Philadelphia area, and they had never even seen something that so synthesizes the wild and wooly city I was starting to love. Despite a million objections by friends and neighbors, my husband and I decided to suit up, brave the cold, and go make a day of it!
After an early train ride, we came out of Suburban Station in the very heart of the city, to a real spectacle! The streets were absolutely crammed with people. I don’t have any pictures of the scale of the Mummers, though I wish I did. Groups of men (mostly) organized in brigades, colorful armies dressed in costume, causing mayhem and ruckus in the streets. The groups are generally divided into Comics, Fancies, String Bands, and Fancy brigades. These brigades organize, create, and rehearse for months and months before the big day. I was awestruck by all the music, the elaborate floats, and the performances.
Probably the most impressive was a pirate ship float that towered over the crowd with cannons, acrobatics, and an entire storyline with performances by each member of the brigade. The brigades stop in front of the Union League, a city club with prestigious members, to be judged by the parade marshals. I have to be honest, I have no clue what the prize was. Bragging rights? Maybe some money. I didn’t get a chance to ask many questions! Everyone was too busy playing music, performing, dancing, and just general hooliganism.
One of the things that most impressed me was the age of so many of the performers. Sure there were many, many young people, but I would say the average age of the brigade members was maybe 50? Men who spent the rest of the year in normal, working-class jobs, in normal clothing, leading normal lives. They had wives, children, mortgages. Then one day a year, they could be whoever they wanted to be in the middle of the street in front of huge crowds. It must be exhilarating to be a Mummer!
I think that’s part of the appeal too. So many of these men spend the rest of the year beholden to all the ties that bind them to their families, jobs, parishes, and communities. They answer to just about everyone else but themselves 364 days a year. During rehearsals, they get to have fun with their friends, have a goal and purpose, and do something totally unique and out of the ordinary.
In the midst of all this deep thinking about the meaning behind the Mummers, we decided to take a break and grab some brunch.
Philadelphia is full of great brunch places. Seriously, Yelp “brunch” and Philadelphia and you kind of can’t go wrong. Over hot toddies and eggs Benedict, we watched a funny performance on the other side of our giant window. Some Mummers decided to accost a diner and challenge him to a foot race on the street. They were playing instruments, mocking him, doing wild dances. I was so happy to have a front row seat to the bedlam. If you’re going to do the Mummers one year, make sure to find a quiet brunch place with big windows! It’s a nice warm way to enjoy the parade.
Back to the deeper meaning behind the brigades… I think in a way it gives the performers a sense of control in a rapidly changing world. Yes, there are racial, political, and gender overtones to this parade. Every year, some brigade goes too far and shows their misogynistic or racist side (usually both). I’d like to think it’s unintentional, but given our political climate, it’s pretty likely that seeking control over an ever-changing world sometimes takes the form of xenophobia and anger. That’s certainly not the intent of the spectacle itself, and I like to think it’s a symptom of a wider societal disease than something unique to the Mummers. Sometimes a little too much alcohol and a lack of inhibitions brings out an ugly side in us all.
Even saying that, it’s hard to look at the joy, laughter, song, and dance and not celebrate along with everyone. The city of Philadelphia isn’t always the friendliest or most open place for outsiders like me. It was so exciting one day a year to have people in the streets laughing, cheering, and asking me to join the fun! I was so impressed with all the hard work and dedication of the Mummer brigades. This wasn’t amateur hour! I’m talking elaborate, expensive, detailed, organized, year-round, hard work. That in itself, is hugely impressive.
I like to celebrate joy wherever I find it. If that’s in the street with hundreds of drunken street performers, so be it! Maybe we should all spend more time with a group of our peers, wear whatever we want to wear, throw off the shackles of everyday life, and dance in the street. What’s the saying?
Sing like no one is listening.
Love like you’ve never been hurt.
Dance like nobody’s watching,
and live like it’s heaven on earth.
We could all use a little of that in life! The next time you’re in this corner of the world, make plans to see the Mummers on January 1st. You won’t regret it. And remember to wear something warm.