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The History of the Mummers and Philadelphia Mummery

Who and What Are Mummers?

Who are the Philadelphia Mummers that participate in the New Year’s Day Parade? Simply, the Philadelphia Mummers are costumed entertainers welcoming in the New Year. And Mummery is as ancient as man’s dream of getting outside of customary life and as old as his imagination. The parade participants take their name from Momus, the Greek god of ridicule. But the tradition developed from a blending of cultures.

Some of the earliest mummers date back to early Egypt. Mummers would lead the burial procession of the Pharaohs in extravagant costumes, playing finger cymbals, tambourines and other rhythm instruments.

Tracing back through the mazes of history that led to England, Wale, Scotland, Germany, ancient France, and pagan Rome and Greece, we find mummery has influenced customs and perpetuated many interesting traditions. Every nation had its festivals at one time or another, each marked by parades and displays of fanciful costumes.

As early as 400 BC, Roman laborers observed the feast of the Saturnalia in honor of their god, Saturn, and the reaping of the harvest. They made calls on friends, they exchanged gifts and it was customary for some of the gifts to bear greetings for a Happy New Year.

Unrestrained merry-making marked the pagan Saturnalia and Carnival, the ancient Roman festival of Saturn that began on December 17th. Slaves sported robes from their masters, and the patricians wearing fantastic costumes, roamed the streets with their slaves. Age and rank were forgotten for the fiesta and all persons were free for the day. There was a musical background for the capers of the multitude with songs and ballads befitting the joyous occasion.

Another early custom was the Florentine Carnival usually held in the beginning of Lent – a day set aside by monks of the Middle Ages for the lords of misrule and the abbots of unreason. At this time, England and Germany celebrated their Christmas Mosque, resulting in riotous indulgence. This took the form of a dramatic entertainment popular in the 16th and 17th centuries, and following usually an allegorical theme, which embodied pageantry, music and dancing. The use of masks and different costumes were incorporated from the Greek celebrations of King Momus, the Italian feast of Saturnalia, and the British Mummery Play.

The Philadelphia Tradition

The tradition of Philadelphia Mummery started in the late 17th century as a continuation of the Old World customs of ushering in the New Year. Mummery in America is as unique to Philadelphia as Mardi Gras is to New Orleans. The Swedes were Philadelphia’s first settlers. When they came to Tinicum, just outside of Philadelphia, they brought their custom of visiting friends on “Second Day Christmas”, December 26th. Later they extended their period of celebration to include New Year’s Day, and welcomed the New Year with masquerades and parades of noisy revelers. Masqueraders paraded the through the streets of Philadelphia.

Most people carried firearms for protection in those early days of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and it did not take long before pistols and muskets joined with bells and noisemakers to create the sound of a New Year. Those who “shot in” the New Year became New Year’s Shooters, and thus the name much later evolved to officially become the New Year’s Shooters and Mummers Association.

Groups would travel from house to house, sing songs, and perform dances — all to be rewarded with food and drink. The early Swedish Mummers appointed a leader, or “speech director”, who had a little dance step and who recited a rhyme like this:

“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.”

Even during the Revolutionary period, New Year’s Day continued to be a day of carnival and friendly calls. General Howe, whose redcoats occupied the city, staged a farewell party for Howe called the “Meschianza” (Italian for melody) in the Wharton mansion in 1778. The party was truly a pageant that recreated a tournament of the Middle Ages, including decorated barges, heralds and trumpeters, a jousting field and the Knights of the Blended Rose. The costumes were made of more than $150,000 worth of silks ($2,250,000 in today’s dollars), paid for by rich junior officers. Captain John Andre, who was the costume designer, described the event as a “delightful and gorgeous spectacle”.

George Washington, following his inauguration, began the official custom of New Year’s Day calls and continued it during the seven years he occupied the presidential mansion in Philadelphia, then the capital. The mummers continued to celebrate annually in their traditional way, reciting jokes, ill-conceived poems, and receiving in return cakes and ale. Groups of five to twenty would march from home to home, shooting and shouting, doing friendly impersonations of General Washington and burlesquing the fashionable English mummers’ play of St. George and the Dragon.

A character that always accompanied their “Washington” was Cooney Cracker, a clown whose costumes and antics, some historians believe, was the forerunner of Uncle Sam. This shooter impersonating Washington had several poems and speeches to recite, which still survive today.

By 1808, the burlesquing of the Mummers’ fashionable play with an increasing number of revelers began offending the social leaders of the day. An act was passed declaring that “masquerades, masquerade balls, and masked processions were public nuisances” with threat of fine and imprisonment.

Nevertheless, the farmers, tradesmen, craftsmen, apprentices, laborers and members of fire fighting companies continued to stage clandestine masquerades on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day. While the celebrations were quieted down, they were not stopped, and the law was abolished in the 1850′s with no reports of convictions. The Mummers continued their own ideas of celebrating New Year’s and clung to their rifles, pistols and friendly calls in “welcoming in the new year”.

In the 1870′s, the nation was recuperating from the Civil War, and what had been an uncoordinated group of neighborhood celebrations turned into an area wide parade with two main groups of participants: Fancy Dress clubs and Comic clubs. Early forms of the parades were present in 1888. Official sponsorship by the City of Philadelphia began with the turn of the century in 1901.

Philadelphia Mummers of Today

The Philadelphia Mummers of today total over approximately 15,000 marchers on New Year’s Day. There are four distinct divisions of the parade: Comic, Fancy, Fancy Brigade and String Band. Comic division clubs lampoon modern day local and national political and social themes. The Fancy division clubs wear large, ornate costumes, carrying back pieces and performing with floats and props. The String Band division clubs not only wear elaborate costumes like the Fancy division, but also drill and perform playing musical instruments.

The first String Band club was formed in 1901, and featured violins, banjos and guitars. A few years later, drums, saxophones, accordions and glockenspiels were introduced, giving the String Band a unique sound. Parade rules do not permit the use of brass instruments in a String Band. The instrumentation is exclusively saxophones, banjos, accordions, violins, bass violins, and percussion instruments.

Mummers String Bands are known, not only for the unique sound, but also for their elaborate costumes. Brilliant materials, glitter, sequins and feathers are all combined to make the showy costumes. Traditionally, band members, wives and friends made the costumes. Today, most bands contract them out to professional costumers. In Philadelphia, the cost of costuming an average 64-piece band is between $30,000 and $80,000, with the captain’s costume costing as high as $10,000. Total costs for a New Year’s Day production now exceed $100,000!

There are eighteen String Band organizations in existence today. Every year, each String Band selects an annual theme, and debuts their new music and costumes in the Philadelphia New Year’s Day parade. This parade is a fascinating annual tradition, brimming with dancers and marching units. The marching leader of the band or captain makes his elaborate debut doing the “2 Street Strut” (like a catwalk). People from the “City of Brotherly Love” know the excitement of a Mummers performance, and to them the Mummers also bring a sense of nostalgia.

Commitment to the community has always been one of the basic principles of Mummers clubs, especially String Band clubs. It is from the entire Delaware Valley community where musicians and helpers (called Marshals) are recruited and trained. It is also from this community where the clubs derive the funds used for the costumes and operations of their clubhouses. It is to this community the String Bands return the gratitude expressed by making each New Year’s Day theme performance more exciting than the last.

Compiled by Steve Coper of the Fralinger String Band