Mummers in the Winter (and Summer)

A long-standing tradition in the city of Philadelphia has been the Mummers Parade, which is held every year on New Year’s Day, and is attended by close to 10,000 people. The history of the Mummers Parade in Philadelphia dates back to the mid 17th century, and the Mummers tradition worldwide can be traced as far back as 400 BC to the Roman Festival of Saturnalias. Mummers are not just found in the city of Philadelphia but also in Ireland and England where similar performances and parades are held. Their history in Philadelphia originated with the celebration of Second Day Christmas, a holiday brought by the Swedes that was drawn into the start of the New Year. The merriment of the Mummers Parade was famous even its early days, and George Washington continued the tradition of calling out New Year’s Day during his years in office. The first “official” parade in Philadelphia was January 1, 1901, and since then, the parade has been held every year, with a few exceptions. The first cancellation was in 1919, due to World War I, and then seventeen years later, in 1934, due largely in part to the depression and lack of funding. Since 1922, there have been twenty-two weather related postponements, but the parade would still be held at a later date.

Today, the Philadelphia Mummers Parade is comprised of four divisions: the Comics, Fancies, String Bands, and Fancy Brigades. Each division or club’s title is reflective of the dress and performance of its members. The Comics parody politicians and current issues, and the Fancies adorn themselves with outrageous costumes and are often accompanied by floats. The String Bands perform routines with only string instruments and the Fancy Brigades, like the Fancies, wear elaborate costumes and also play instruments. The earliest known Mummer club was formed in 1840 and was called the Chain Gang. Throughout the years the names of clubs, specifically the comics, held rather amusing titles such as The Energetic Hoboes and The Red Onions.

While the Mummers may best be known for their performance on the first day of the year, they have often appeared during the Philadelphia Freedom Festival. The Philadelphia Freedom Festival, also known as Freedom Week, is another annual celebration held every year in Philadelphia during the first week of July to commemorate Independence Day.  Throughout the week, there are various programs and events such as fireworks, parades, concerts, and most notably, the appearance of the lively and entertaining Mummers. Unlike the Mummers Parade on New Year’s Day which stretches over two miles from South Philadelphia to City Hall, the Freedom Festival is held along the Ben Franklin Parkway in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and similarly, continues to City Hall. During the year, Mummers can also be found at events, celebrations, and private parties in the area.

The deeply seeded tradition of the Mummers Parade is held dear to the hearts of the residents of Philadelphia. Each year the unofficial theme song for the Mummers Parade, “Oh, Dem Golden Slippers,” written in 1879 by James Bland, an African American songwriter, can be heard throughout the parade.

“Oh, dem golden slippers
Oh, dem golden slippers
Golden slippers I’se goin’ to wear
Because they look so neat
Oh, dem golden slippers
Oh, dem golden slippers
Golden slippers I’se goin’ to wear
To walk the golden street”

– excerpt from Oh, Dem Golden Slippers, by James Bland

References:

Dubin, M. (1996). South Philadelphia: Mummers, Memories, and the Melrose Diner. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Kennedy, E.A. (2007). Life, Liberty, and the Mummers. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

“Mummers Parade.” City of Philadelphia – Recreation 10 August 2010 http://www.phila.gov/recreation/mummers/Mummers_History.html (Accessed 10 August 2010).

“Oh, Dem Golden Slippers.” City of Philadelphia – Recreation 10 August 2010 http://www.phila.gov/recreation/Golden_Slippers.html (Accessed 10 August 2010).

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