Philadelphia’s Early Mummers
Philadelphia’s famous New Year’s Day parade featuring the Mummers has roots dating back to colonial America, and the festivals that inspired our local tradition date back much, much further.
Philadelphia’s Mummers are said to be primarily Swiss in origin, although other neighborhoods and immigrant communities surely contributed their own spin to this unique event.
The European “Mummers” poem linked to the festival:
Here we stand before your door,
As we stood the year before;
Give us whisky, give us gin,
Open the door and let us in.
Philadelphia, a city of neighborhoods, naturally turned this celebration into a sort of competition between communities, with different groups gathering into groups (and without the door-to-door wassailing).
The city officially began organizing the parade in 1901.
Mummers break into five types of groups: Comics, Fancies, Fancy Brigades, String Bands, and Wench Brigades. News organization Billy Penn broke them down like this:
Comic. Considered the traditional Mummers. They make fun of news or pop culture through skits and themes and often dress as clowns.
Wench Brigades. An offshoot of the Comic division. They portray a central theme through costume also intended to be funny. They’re pretty much men dressed like women and though they’re named after medieval women they trace their origins back to 19th century-era plantation women.
Fancy Division. Known for the most elaborate costumes. Like so elaborate you’ll feel like you’re in the song “Yellow Submarine.”
Fancy Brigades. They’re a spinoff of the Fancy Division, also known for elaborate costumes. They perform 4.5 minute broadway-style skits inside the Convention Center.
String Bands. The Mummers who strut and play music at the same time (now that’s a skill). They use instruments like saxophones, banjos, accordions, violins and various percussion instruments.
Early costumes were cotton-based but became more elaborate over time.
The Mummers parade continues to this day, although the route has changed slightly.
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This is an adaptation of a tour for Philadelphia Rail Park Tours, an affiliated company of Popular History. The tour begins just north of Callowhill & Broad.
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