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One Philadelphia tradition that I just don't get: Mummers. On New Year's Day, thousands of normal people dress in feathers, sequins, and intensely gaudy outfits, and then march for hours playing musical instruments. The parade is televised, and it lasts for hours and hours and hours. The music is, to my ears, pretty awful... lots of banjos, and some nasty arrangements of good songs. Multitudes of people go to watch the parade, and they drink a lot (to keep warm, and I also suspect because a parade of 15,000 mummers that lasts forever gets boring after a while).
Mumming is a Philadelphia tradition. Mulitple generations of a family perform in a particular string band. Each band paractices all year for the big parade-- they design and make their costumes, arrange the music, and create their coreography.
In a sense, I admire this dedication... but I still don't get it.
In the New Year's Day parade, the bands compete in various categories that I also don't quite get: fancies, comics, string bands, and fancy brigades.
There is a Mummers Museum in Philadelphia; check the web site for information.
I just don't get it!
Bring in the New Year Philly Style
The Parade has roots in early merrymaking that date back to the 1700's but it became a sponsored event around 1901 The Mummers Parade also had some beginnings in 19th-century traditions as Philadelphia's Carnival of Horns drew 1000s of costumed characters celebrating with noisemakers around South Street. Southern life also made significant contributions to today's New Year's Day event. Not only does its contribution include "Oh! Dem Golden Slippers," the Parade's theme song composed by Philadelphian James Bland in 1879, but evidence indicates that the famed "Strut" may have been an offshoot of the popular 19th-century cakewalk dance. Until the 1900's, almost all masqueraders wore make-shift apparel. However, spirit and imagination provided motivations for the revelers to join together in associations to raise money for more elaborate New Year's costumes.The earliest clubs formed around 1840 and String Bands organized in the early 1900's. But not until 1906 did the bands compete. Bart H. McHugh, a Philadelphia theatrical producer and publicity agent is credited with the idea for a city-sponsored parade. By the 1930's New Year's clubs had united for the purpose of encouraging and promoting the tradition of Mummery""Today the Mummers parade is a celebration of the New Year but is serious business in Philadelphia. Clubs work on the costumes and practice all year for their one day in the sun . There are many lively discussions over the scoring by the judges and adherence to the complicated set of rules the marchers must follow when being judged. String Bands are judged on their musical presentation as well as the costumes. Seeing and hearing a String Band performing live in the parade is a one-of-a-kind experience."
The Mummers march down Broad Street every New Years Day (weather provided)
The parade lasts from approx 9AM to 6PM then merrymakers carry on their parties on 2 Street and all over the city.
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Start the Year Off with Mumming
As part of the Society of Friends (aka "Quakers"), William Penn founded this city to be a beacon of tolerance, dignity, and thoughtfulness. Ben Franklin was enraptured by such a community, and tried to raise it up as a central place of learning, thrift, hard work, and moderation in all things. "High" society, epitomized by the Katharine Hepburn character in _The Philadelphia Story_, never stopped working for a city centered on good taste and quiet dignity.
What none of these people planned for, however, was the arrival of groups of people for whom none of the above characteristics were considered virtues. As far back as three centuries ago, mummers ("to mum" = "to wear a mask") and shooters in the area would start the new year with pure merriment, in hopes that a happy beginning would foretend a happy year ahead. The literal and cultural descendants of these people, while they no longer start the year with shooting, still continue to bring joy and delight with music, mumming, and general merry-making.
Although the very essence of mummers makes control of this event difficult, since 1901 the city has TRIED to make a parade of mummers to be something the city isn't ashamed of. Be aware of the word "tried" -- there may well be parts that will make you roll your eyes.
All participants are basically volunteers, who contribute their time, skill, money, and effort to put on a show. There are no professional bands, no corporate sponsored floats, no celebrities trying to plug their shows: just people who give up a lot to give everyone one day of fun. If you like the high production quality of the Rose Parade, you may not enjoy the Mummers. But if you like fun, you'll find it here!
The parade is a South Philly tradition, so participants are almost entirely from that area. There is no rule about gender, but the long tradition of men only means males still predominate. Being a mummer is definitely a family tradition, and four generations of mummers in one parade is not unheard of.
The four categories of the parade are:
1) Comics: small groups of people with (literally) home-made floats, doing a one joke skit. Mockery is the essence of this group, do don't expect decorum.
2) Fancies: costumes that Lady Ga-ga would call over-the-top. Most are so heavy that you can hardly call them costumes.
3) Wenches: groups dressing up in female costume, complete with wigs.
4) String Bands: marching bands with strings (including bass), accordians, and saxophones; but no brass or percussion. At parade's end they perform a full show, complete with movable floats as a back-drop.
In each category, groups -- some have been around for decades -- compete against each other for prizes of money and prestigue. A feature in all categories is "strutting," where one walks around with as impessive swagger as possible. In the strings, the captain sets the pace for this strut, and there is a prize for best string captain. A standard song for strutting is the jazzy spiritual, "O' Dem Golden Slippers."
The parade last for well over eight hours, so be prepared for a long time. The latter parts are (for most people) the better parts, so feel free to arrive late afternoon. Food and portable toilets are easy to find, and people are invariably friendly. Except for a few seats at the end of the parade, all viewing areas are "first-come, first-serve." It is strongly recommended that you use public transport to get to the parade area.
One of Philadelphia's many traditions --- The Mummers.
Mummers strut and dance their way on parades especially on New Year's Day.
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