Most people celebrate New Year’s Day by drafting their resolutions, gearing up for the year ahead and, most importantly, recooperating from the night before. But here in Philadelphia it is a different story. While everyone else has moved on, we are still carrying on from the night before. The city of Philadelphia shuts down so that large groups of people can dress up in flamboyant outfits, play crazy music and strut down Broad Street. Yes, I’m speaking of the Mummers.
The Mummers Parade in Philadelphia is America’s oldest folk festival. There are many different groups who spend the entire year on Second Street in my neighborhood of Pennsport (also known as “Two Street) preparing their themes, sewing their costumes, crafting their props and designing their floats for one epic parade on New Years Day. But it’s not just a parade — it’s also a heated competition. There are four categories: The Comics, The Fancies, The String Bands and The Fancy Brigades. And what are they competing for? I guess it’s just television air time and a year’s worth of bragging rights in the Mummer community.
The Mummers might be a once a year kind of deal for the world… but living in Pennsport, the Mummers is a part of every day life. I pass by the Mummers Museum, a popular meeting place for Mummers throughout the year, on my way to work everyday. I watch the String Bands practice under the I-95 overpass and along Dickinson Square Park. I’ve even infiltrated their super secret Mummers meetings held not-so-secretly at the local pub. Ah, yes, the Mummers is a part of my all day everyday living here in South Philly. So it’s really nice to see their dreams come to life on New Year Day.
The Mummers roots can be found all the way in the mid-17th century. Apparently, it was the Swedes, Philadelphia’s first settlers, who brought the tradition over. They would begin partying down on December 26th, calling it second Christmas, and just party loudly in the streets until New Years Day, dressing in comical attire and would march all the way to the neighborhoods of Tinicum and Kingsessing. As Philadelphia became more diverse, the English and Welsh communities began bringing in their customs by reciting poems and traditional songs to the streets of these neighborhoods. Soon after, the Germans began dressing like Belsnickle, one of the first original depictions of Santa Claus, who was dressed almost like a clown.
Indeed, the Mummers Parade is truly where world traditions collide. Even when George Washington took office in Philadelphia he made sure the tradition continued. Flamboyantly clothed Mummers would run around the city reciting poems and singing songs in exchange for cakes and ales. As the years went by, this custom took on many names — it was called “the cakewalk”, “the 2nd Street Strut” and eventually we arrived at “the Mummers’ Strut”. Mummers would go from door to door reciting the traditional Swedish poem in exchange for left over holiday treats:
“Here we stand before your door,
As we stood the year before;
Give us whiskey; give us gin,
Open the door and let us in.
Or give us something nice and hot
Like a steaming hot bowl of pepper pot!”
Eventually, by 1906, cash prizes were given… and that’s when it got organized. Because we all know, introduce a little bit of cash and everyone gets organized starts taking it seriously. Teams began to form, plans were made, and the Mummers Parade became something of a methodical art form.
Where to catch the Mummers?
If you have plans of doing anything that is not Mummer related on New Years Day, then forget about it. Seriously, last year, I thought I would go out to breakfast on New Years morning and nothing was open. You can pretty much catch the Mummers everywhere in the city, roaming the streets east of Broad Street, but the coolest place to see them is in their natural habitat strutting on Broad Street. Later in the day, the Mummers migrate over to Second Street, stumbling through Old City, Society Hill and all of those other fancy neighborhoods. They party down around 2nd and Washington and south from there. It’s quite festive, and I guarantee the most creative way to spend your New Years Day.