For those readers who’ll be in Philadelphia over the New Year, you won’t want to miss the 102nd New Year’s Day Mummers Parade.

So who are the Mummers?  The forerunners appear to date back to 400 B.C. and the Roman Festival of Saturnalia.  In that era, Latin laborers marched in masks through a day of satire and gift exchange; the Celtic version was a variation of the “trick-or-treat” theme.  Since that time, the bacchanalia of New Year’s celebrations have taken many twists and turns, but hthe revelry and enthusiasm of its origins remains.

The first “official” Philadelphia Mummers Parade was held in 1901, and it has become the most authentic folk festival in the world. 

Thousands of people (this year estimated to exceed 15,000), capped and caped, speckled and sequined, strut their stuff as Mummers.  And I do mean strut!  Mummers don’t walk, march, or even dance.  They cakewalk — a strut that has become closely identified with the Mummers and the parade.

The parade is a celebration of the New Year, but it is also serious business.  The revelry only lasts one day ““ but it’s the entire day ““ and it is the culmination of year round work by Mummer clubs to develop a theme, create costumes, build props and rehearse.  It’s all about the competition.  Not for the prize money (which doesn’t begin to cover the cost of parade participation), but about the neighborhood bragging rights for the coming year. 

The parade is divided into four divisions, or troupes:  Comic Clubs, Fancy Clubs, String Bands, and Fancy Brigades. 

The Comics focus on satire and ridicule, and just about any person or institution is fair game.  The Fancies are all about pomp and ceremony, and are known for their beautiful colors, costumes, and elaborate, themed presentations.  The String Bands merge costumes and music in a band that consists of a variety of strings, glockenspiels, saxophones, accordions and drums, along with lots of dancers.  The result is a distinctive strum.  The Fancy Brigades (think lots of Fancies) march in the parade, but are judged during an outdoor performance of complicated and intricate dance routines that follows the parade.

An interesting historical note:  In 1808 legislation was passed in Philadelphia banning the types of celebrations like the Mummer’s Parade.  Leaders felt that such celebrations caused too much nuisance and noise making.  No one was every convicted of charges, and the Mummers Parade remains as festive and noisy as ever.

The Mummers Parade is a great tradition ““ and I’m putting it on my lists of things to see and do.

Photo credit:  (c) Sam Moskovitz/Mummers Museum