Saturday, January 11, 2014


Since we have just celebrated New Year's Day, and in Philadelphia that means the Mummer's Parade, I thought I would tell you something about it.  It's a very long parade.  This year it lasted 7 1/2 hours.

The Mummers Parade is believed to be the oldest folk festival in the United States.  Local clubs (usually called "New Years Associations") compete in one of four categories (comics, fancies, string bands, and fancy brigades). They prepare elaborate costumes and moveable scenery, which take months to complete. This is done in clubhouses which also serve as social gathering places for members.

The parade traces back to mid-17th-century roots, blending elements from Swedish, Finnish, Irish, English, German, and other European heritages, as well as African heritage.  Swedes, Philadelphia's first settlers, brought the custom of visiting neighbors on "Second Day Christmas" (December 26) with them. This was soon extended through New Year's Day with costumed celebrants loudly parading through the city. The Belsnickel, an early German version of Santa Claus, inspired comic masqueraders  dressed as clowns. 

The Mummers in the early 19th century continued their tradition of reciting comic verse to their neighbors in exchange for cakes and ale. Small groups of up to twenty mummers, their faces blackened, went door to door, shooting guns and shouting, while spoofing General George Washington and the English Mummers' play St. George and the Dragon.

Southern plantation life made its contribution by giving the parade its theme song, James A. Bland's "Oh, Dem Golden Slippers" (introduced in 1903), as well as the 19th-century cakewalk, dubbed the "Mummers' Strut".  Revelers traveling from door-to-door sang and danced for rewards of food and drink. Cash prizes debuted in 1906.

The earliest documented club, the Chain Gang, formed in 1840 and Golden Crown first marched in 1876 with cross-town rivals Silver Crown forming soon after. By 1881, a local report said "Parties of paraders" made the street "almost like a masked Ball."

The first official parade was held January 1, 1901. The first string band, Trilby, was organized in 1898, first paraded in 1902, and last paraded in 1924. In the early years of the official parade, the makeshift costumes of most celebrants were gradually replaced by more elaborate outfits funded by associations' fund-raising efforts.

 The comics "wenches" and female parts in most skits are typically performed by men in drag. Women were not officially allowed in the parade until the 1970s.

Comics:  Comics are clowns in colorful outfits, often with multi-level umbrellas who dance  to recordings such as "Golden Slippers". The comics typically start the parade. Themes often gently parody current events and traditional life. 

Wench brigades, an offshoot of comics, pride themselves on continuing traditions such as the dress-and-bloomers "suits", painted faces, decorated umbrellas, and live bands to accompany the brigade.

Fancies:  The fancy division is made up of four mother clubs:  Adelphia, Golden Sunrise (my cousin was Captain of this group for many years), Hog Island, and Oregon.  Members with some small floats strut in elaborate costumes to music provided by a live band.

String bands:  String bands provide elaborate performances. String bands feature banjos, saxophones (alto, tenor, baritone and bass), accordions, double basses, drums, glockenspiels and violins in musical arrangements tied to a theme presented by the captain, beautiful costumes and props (some people call them floats). Historically, string bands performed mostly in military-drill formations. Uptown String Band's first-prize-winning railroad tunes with Broadway-style dance in 1976 changed that. String-band performances are now the most elaborate of the parade, outdone only by the fancy brigades' indoor performance.

2014 Mummers Parade-0508

Fancy brigadesThe largest category with the largest crews, the fancy brigades march the southernmost portion of the parade route, before heading to the Convention Center for a ticketed show and judging.  Until the late 1970s, the fancy brigades were simply larger presentations within the Fancies. As the props grew larger, more cumbersome and more vulnerable to wind, rain and snow, the decision was made to move the Brigades indoors.

My dad and uncle were part of the Ukrainian American Stringband.  It was neat watching them on TV.  One of the guys in my church belongs to the Quaker City Stringband.

I guess I can say that it's just not New Year's Day in Philadelphia without the Mummers.  Although not everyone loves them (some people actually hate them!), I think they are great.  I guess they are in my blood. 


  1. I learned a lot today.Even though I grew up in Philly,I never knew the history of the Mummers.It's worth commenting that
    whether you like them or not,everyone in Philly knows the mummers strut!

    1. Yes they do! And most people can do it and will show you how it's done at the drop of a hat.

  2. I love the Mummers parade-I grew up in Bradford Co, PA.. I think it is a hoot. And, yes, the Mummer's strut makes me laugh- The costuming and work that goes into the final parade has always amazed me. xo Diana

  3. Thanks Kathy for sharing this. I learned a lot!

  4. interesting for sure. never heard of this. Thanks!


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