Published: 17-03-2010, 16:14

Mummers Parade

For more than one hundred years, the people of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, have lined the streets on New Year’s Day to watch the Mummers Parade. Marching string bands, fancy and funny floats, and thousands of extravagantly costumed mummers dazzle onlookers brave enough to risk the winter weather. Although participants in Philadelphia’s first officially sanctioned parade strutted up Broad Street in 1900, local people established the custom of parading in costume on New Year’s Eve and Day way back in the first half of the nineteenth century (see CHRISTMAS IN NINETEENTH-CENTURY AMERICA).

Many of those who celebrated Christmas in early nineteenth-centu-ry America did so by shooting off guns (see also SHOOTING IN CHRISTMAS). This custom was popular in the West, the South, and in many areas settled by Germans. Those who didn’t own guns, such as children, found other ways to make loud noises, like popping inflated hog bladders, the nineteenth-century equivalent of a balloon. On occasion a gang of especially rowdy frontiersmen blew up a stash of gunpowder, so as to create an especially deafening noise with which to usher in Christmas. In some American towns and cities boys and men took to the streets at Christmas and New Year’s, blowing on tin horns, ringing fire BELLS, firing guns, shouting, drinking, cussing, fighting, and generally disturbing the peace.
In areas where the English had settled, some of their descendants kept up a version of Christmas time MUMMING. Groups of boys or young men would dress in rude, homemade costumes, and go door to door, reciting some garbled folk verse and partaking of the household’s hospitality in the form of food and drink. The Scotch Irish practiced similar customs on New Year’s Eve, or HOGMANAY. In Pennsylvania, some Americans of German descent developed a distinctive custom called belsnickling. Young men and boys disguised their identities by covering their faces with a mask or low-slung hat or by darkening them with burnt cork, soot, or redwash. Then they dressed in rags, furs, or baggy overcoats and armed themselves with bells, whips, and sacks. Thus arrayed they trouped about town or village, playing tricks on neighbors and frightening children by cracking their whips while tossing them sweets and nuts. They received food and drink at homes where they succeeded in amusing householders with rhymes and horseplay.

In nineteenth-century Philadelphia all these traditions collided and merged, creating pandemonium in the streets at New Year’s and Christmas. By the 1830s and 1840s, people began to create slightly fancier disguises for their holiday frolics. Some dressed up as blacks or members of other ethnic groups in order to make fun of them, thereby using holiday mumming customs as a way of expressing their fear of or hostility towards certain groups. Others were less pointed in their actions and choice of dress. Costumed celebrants, dubbed “fantasticals,” often converged downtown, engaging in lively horseplay and raising a ferocious din with firecrackers, horns, whistles, bells, hornpipes, or homemade instruments of various kinds. Some of these intrepid instrumentalists organized themselves into impromptu bands, marching up and down the street and churning out a discordant kind of music referred to as “callithumpian.” A newspaper ac-count from January 10,1834, describes New Year’s celebrations in the nearby town of Easton:

The Fantasticals. On New Year’s Day our borough witnessed a parade of the fantasticals—the immediate body guard of the lately elected redoubtable Col. Sheffler. It was a new and perhaps an improved edition of the late parades in New York and Philadelphia. The corps including music (numbered) about one hundred. The Calithumpian band had been uniformed and pressed into service. These commenced their melody about 10 o’clock in the forenoon and made the circuit of the town, playing the most splendid and novel voluntaries and variations. Their dresses displayed taste and ingenuity. All the quarters of the earth appeared to have been ransacked to swell the ranks of the Enterpian band. Indians, Negroes, hunters, Falstaffs, Jim Crows and nondescripts, all displaying surprizing (sic) skill upon their several instruments ... Conch-shells, old cracked instruments, stones, shingles, tin horns, speaking trumpets, here and there a bassoon, old kettles, pot-lids, dozens of cow-bells strung upon poles and iron hoops constituted their musical instruments.... [Welch, 1991,29-30]

In the rest of the country these carnivalesque Christmas celebrations faded as the century rolled by. In Philadelphia, however, holiday noisemaking and masquerading customs grew in popularity. Philadelphia’s first mummers club, a group organized solely for the purpose of parading together in costume on New Year’s Day, was organized in 1846. Called the Chain Gang, the club survived into the twentieth century.
In the early days these masqueraders were referred to as “shooters.” The name came from the old, established custom of shooting in Christmas. By the 1880s a few people began to refer to them as mummers and the new name stuck.
In the year 1861 the rowdy revelers succeeded in reducing the center of the city to chaos. Many of the city’s leading citizens were not amused. Opposition to these disorderly practices can be traced back to the eighteenth century, when historical documents reveal that certain Christmas masqueraders were tried in courts of law for their unruly behavior. The Pennsylvania legislature passed a law against Christmas masquerading and masked balls in 1808, but in spite of the stiff penalties—up to three months in jail and fines of up to $1,000 — the law was not really enforced. In 1868 and again in 1881 Philadelphia’s city government attempted to outlaw Christmas noise-making, masquerading, and parading.
These laws failed to root out the deeply entrenched custom, however. Instead, these half-hearted restrictions, plus the growing, late-nineteenth-century consensus that Christmas was a domestic holiday, acted together to shift the holiday season masquerading away from Christmas and towards New Year’s Day (for more on the changing sentiments concerning Christmas, see America, Christmas in Nineteenth-Century).
African-American cultural elements began to influence the parade in the second half of the nineteenth century. Many mummers paraded with a particular kind of strutting walk that some researchers believe may have been derived from the cakewalk, a nineteenth-century African-American dance that parodied and exaggerated the fancy steps popular in the formal balls of the time. The name came from the custom of awarding a cake to the couple with the best moves. The song “Oh, dem Golden Slippers,” written by African-American composer James Bland in 1879, became very popular with the mummers and today it still serves as a kind of theme song for the parade.

In the years following the Civil War, the Philadelphia Mummers Parade as we know it today took shape. The year 1876 witnessed the first, unofficial, New Year’s Day Mummers Parade. The parade did not proceed in a direct manner down the street, however. Instead, participants meandered towards city hall, stopping frequently to eat, drink, and socialize. The leisurely paraders might take all day to arrive at their final destination. In that era many saloons offered free beer and food to the marchers. Paraders partook freely of these offerings. What’s more, neighborhood women and local stores often baked cakes for their favorite clubs. The clubs stopped by to serenade the women or the storeowners, and received the cake in return. Some groups pulled a cake wagon along behind them, a vehicle specially designated to hold these offerings. These cakes provided refreshments at later New Year’s parties.
By the 1880s many mummers clubs had been established. Members of these groups came primarily from the neighborhoods of South Philadelphia, still a stronghold of parade enthusiasts today. In 1888 the first cash prize was awarded to a mummers club for its performance in the parade.

By 1900 city officials grew tired of trying to curtail the sprawling parade and decided to sponsor it instead. The city provided cash prizes for the best club performances in two divisions, fancy and comic. The fancy clubs focused their attention on creating beautiful and elaborate costumes. The comics dedicated themselves to making people laugh. In 1902 the first string band, named Trilby, marched in the official parade.
With the parade now an accepted event in Philadelphia’s yearly calendar, participants began to put more and more effort into their costumes. By the 1920s the captains of fancy clubs wore long, magnificent trains along with their costumes. In 1929 the leader of the Silver Crown Club wore a satin train that stretched a city block in length. Dozens of page boys kept the train from dragging on the ground.
As the years went by old clubs died out and new clubs took over. Some old traditions, too, began to fade away. The old simple comic costume — often a coat turned inside out with a sign pinned to it — fell out of favor to be replaced with more elaborate efforts. Another old mummers’ device, a walking stick with some dice attached to the top of it, was eliminated, perhaps out of fears that some might use it as a weapon. Female impersonators began to make regular appearances with the clubs beginning in the early twentieth century.
The need for coordination between mummers clubs gave rise to the Mummers’Association. This association, together with city hall officials, began to formulate rules governing parade participants and the awarding of prizes. With each decade the number of rules and restrictions grew, as what was once a spontaneous folk custom became a government-regulated event.
Nevertheless, it is family tradition, not prize money, that inspires a large percentage of the mummers to carry on the old New Year’s Day customs. Many parade participants grew up watching their grandfathers, uncles, and fathers march in the parade.
Nowadays mummers compete with one another in four divisions: the comics, the fancies, the string bands, and the fancy brigades. The comic clubs organize their displays around humorous themes and dress like clowns. The string bands are marching, costumed musical ensembles, featuring the banjo and the saxophone. The fancy clubs wow the audience with their imaginative and lavish costumes and floats, and the fancy brigades — the largest of all the clubs — showcase spectacularly costumed performers in an elaborately choreographed performance.
Over the years both the number of participants and the value of the cash prizes has increased. In recent years about 15,000 costumed mummers have taken part in the parade. In 2002 the judges awarded a total of $375,000 among various winners.

One initially unpopular parade rule was announced in 1963. It declared that marchers could no longer appear in blackface. The ruling was made in response to pressure from civil rights activists, who felt that the spectacle of white people disguising themselves as simple-minded blacks was degrading to African Americans. Many mummers were outraged at this interference. They pointed out that mummers had painted their faces black for hundreds of years as a kind of simple, homemade disguise. Activists countered that in spite of its origins, blackface had since become a method of poking fun at black people. The 1963 parade, monitored by hundreds of police, was tense and sullen, but only a small percentage of mummers defied the ban on blackface. The tension over this issue subsided after a few years.
During the 1960s, no predominantly African-American clubs marched in the parade. The last African-American club, the Octavius V. Cato Club, had put in its final parade appearance in 1929. Lingering suspicion and resentment over the blackface issue kept all but a few African Americans out of the parade again until the Octavius V. Cato string band marched with the Goodtimers Club in 1987. Since that time slowly increasing numbers of African Americans have joined the existing clubs.
Women, too, had been excluded from the parade until recent times, although over the years a few had succeeded in infiltrating the parade in mask and costume. The first women to openly march in the parade did so in 1975, as official members of the Dick Crean String Band. Slowly but surely, other clubs began to accept female members.
Some bystanders complain that with the advent of television coverage, the mummers perform less for the crowds and more for the camera. Perhaps in response to the convenience of being able to watch the parade on television, the crowds lining the streets have dwindled from a high of about two million people in the 1940s to about a quarter of a million people in recent years. In response to declining turnouts, the city has decreased the parade route from 2.5 miles to 10 city blocks.
The mummers themselves are preoccupied with the expense involved in maintaining their tradition. Costuming an entire club costs tens of thousands of dollars, money that must be raised by club members since no corporate sponsorship is allowed. The number of fancy clubs has decreased in recent years in response to the rising costs of these costumes. Only the top contenders in each division can expect to defray some of their club’s expenses with prize money. The rest continue because of their pride in a Philadelphia tradition and their love for mumming.