There are a handful of events that stand out as Pennsylvania originals: The Little League World Series, Groundhog Day, and the New Years Mummers Parade.
So... it was only natural for me to show up early on January 1st to get a front-and-center seat for what is traditionally known as America’s oldest folk parade. But I’m a rookie when it comes to this experience as the parade lasts over six hours (2008 and before it lasted eleven hours!) which means there was no reason to get there early.
Before I get too far ahead, I probably should let you know what a mummer is. Well...in ages past, it was a person who went door-to-door after Christmas, dressed in disguises, to perform skits and songs (much like Bushnickle of the PA Dutch). When people from these traditions immigrated to America (mainly to Philadelphia), the after Christmas elements mixed with the New Year celebration of walking down the street, firing guns in the air (later to be replaced with shouting and fireworks). Ultimately, this turned into a mob (mostly men) dressing up in colorful outfits and painted faces - dancing and strutting down streets - then organizing into different associations and brigades to compete in various parade categories on New Years Day in Philly.
My first impression of the event was: WOW! I feel like I’m at a Mardi Gras or something. My second impression was: have most of these people been partying since last night? Both were correct as the parade has the flashy flare (lots of candy and beads) of a New Orleans hoopla, and yep, many of the participants have been drinking since December 31st.
If I had to give the parade a MPAA rating, it would be PG-13 as there were open containers everywhere (a police officer I talked with said it causes more trouble taking the drinks away than just letting it be), plenty of public intoxication, a few sexually suggestive skits and costumes, and some questionable practices involving racial stereotypes (I’m trying to give these individuals the benefit of the doubt as I’m not quite positive they knew it was questionable).
With that said, there was still a lot of good, wholesome, family fun to be had -- not to mention the multitude of hot pretzel carts being wheeled around (mmm...). The string band division, to me, is the most enjoyable part of the parade. These unique groups have some of the most outlandish costumes, plus they march with instruments that aren’t traditionally easy to carry (i.e. 40 pound double basses and baritone saxophones).
I think my favorite aspect of this event is how open and casual the participants, spectators, and even the police are as everyone interacts with everyone.
While waiting for their brigade to move forward, three girls from the crowd crossed the barricade to chat with the group’s banjo players - this turned into a small dance party as the girls, banjo players, and a traffic cop all started to dance and jive. Sweet, sweet fun!
I also talked with one string band founder who had been marching in the parade for over fifty years. He was extremely excited to have his son, grandson, and now great grandson marching side-by-side with him through the streets of South Philly.
It turns out, having multiple generations participate in the festival is a pretty normal thing. One couple, dressed up as a clock and the moon, had their infant dressed as a cow (fastened to the moon) and paused every few seconds to proudly showcase their newborn to the crowds along the boulevard. This kind of thing could be seen throughout the day.
Overall, I had a blast and a half! I thoroughly enjoyed myself and would strongly encourage anyone to check out the Mummers Parade. If you can’t be here on New Years Day, be sure to swing by the Mummer Museum on South Second Street. It’ll be worth your while to do so.
Happy 2013 Here A Year-ers!