Happy New Year! This morning, Philadelphians are watching the Mummers make their way through the streets. “Mumming” is as old as Philadelphia (and much older) but the first city sponsored parade was in 1901. Most visitors to Philadelphia on New Year’s seem confused by the spectacle, but to a Philadelphian, it wouldn’t be New Years without them. It is the oldest folk parade in the country.
The tradition of mumming comes to America from Europe where it began as a pagan tradition celebrating Yule and the winter solstice. Men and women would exchange clothes, dance and put on performances or plays to gather a crowd. Symbolic characters would assist in the plays, such as Father Christmas, with good and bad characters (always overacted) to make a spectacle. The wassail bowl was never far away (see my blog on wassailing- both 12 days of Christmas traditions). Mumming means “making diversion in disguise.” Its tradition can still be seen in Canada, the UK, Newfoundland and here, in the U.S. (obviously).
Philadelphian mummers would chant-
“Here we stand before your door,
As we stood the year before;
Give us whiskey, give us gin,
Open your door and let us in.
Or give us something nice and hot
Like a steaming hot bowl of pepper pot!”
(pepper pot soup and drinks are still served to mummers in Philadelphia after the parade)
Medieval England is where the tradition of mumming began to earn a bad name. It became an excuse for people to go around to houses begging and committing crimes when refused food or drink or entry into homes. The same issues presented themselves in Philadelphia when mumming included wearing masks and shooting forearms into the air during the 17 and 18th centuries. Mummers were banned in Philadelphia for a few decades during the 1800’s because of the issues they presented, but the tradition never really ended. The city, by the 1880’s began to require the participants to join organized groups. The masked parades began to rival each other in decoration and performance. Many immigrants became involved in the mummers’ tradition. Many mummers were of Irish, German, Italian, Polish decent. After WWII many of those members were Italian American. The neighborhoods of Pennsport and Whitman in South Philadelphia are home to many participants in the parade. Though there are African American musicians that participate in the parade as musicians, there has been an absence of black participants for decades. (That may have a bit to do with the fact that the “Mummer’s strut” is based on the cakewalk and that people used to wear blackface in costume.)
Many traditions have sketchy foundations. Both mumming and wassailing may have strange and violent roots, their modern presentations are fun and mostly unaware of the distant past. The Mummer’s parade is full of joyous celebration and revelry! Mummery in Philadelphia is closely connected to the social and economic fabric of the city. Modern day Mummers are very proud people and contribute to the city in many ways. I know one of the string bands played at my graduation from college and it was a blast!
Have a Happy New Year everyone and I hope you get to see the Fancy Brigades! They are my favorites!