Who and What are Mummers
To define them simply, Mummers are costumed entertainers welcoming in the New Year. Some of the earliest mummers date back to early Egypt, pagan Rome and Greece, England, Germany, and France. Historically, 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. All of these cultures passed along their traditions from generation to generation, and eventually these traditions were brought to America by immigrants.
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. For example, 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 26. 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. 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.
By the 1870’s, what had been an uncoordinated group of neighborhood celebrations turned into an area-wide parade with two main groups of participants: Fancy Dress and Comic clubs. The City of Philadelphia finally sponsored and organized the first official Mummers Parade on January 1, 1901.
Philadelphia Mummers of Today
The Philadelphia Mummers of today total over 10,000 marchers. The parade is still held on New Year’s Day, with four distinct divisions: Comic, Fancy, Fancy Brigade, Wench Briagde 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 Fancy Brigade division clubs also wear large, ornate costumes, and perform intricate dances and drills with elaborate props.
The String Band division clubs not only wear elaborate costumes like the Fancy and Fancy Brigade divisions, but also drill and perform playing musical instruments. One of the first String Band clubs was Trilby, who first paraded in 1902 and is still in existence today. 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, professional designers and costumers are utilized. 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. 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. The marching leader of the band or Captain makes their elaborate debut doing the “2 Street Strut”.
People from the “City of Brotherly Love” know the excitement of a Mummers performance, but the Mummers also preserve that sense of nostalgia and tradition. 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, Fralinger String Band