Not long ago, during an interview, I was asked, “If Pete Ciarrocchi could tell the world something it doesn’t already know about Philly, what would it be?”
Of course, our great city has no shortage of people, places, cultural hubs and institutions that make it special, which made that question a tricky one to answer. However, of all of the things that make the City of Brotherly Love great, the one that I wish I could tell the world about is the Mummers. So I decided to provide a little bit of background on one of Philadelphia’s greatest cultural institutions with this blog post. Read on to learn more about the Mummers and what makes them special!
What is a Mummer?
Today, we think of “mummers” as costumed celebrators masquerading through the city in colorful troops on New Year’s Day. While that conception of mummery is completely accurate, mummers can be found throughout history, with their origins dating all the way back to ancient Egypt.
Throughout the centuries, mummers’ celebrations have always taken place on holidays; and their purpose has always been to “mum,” which means to perform in costume. These performances could take the form of skits, plays, poems and songs.
The Mummers’ History in Philadelphia
The Mummers are an integral part of Philadelphia’s rich cultural history. In fact, they started back in the 17th century. Their purpose? A continuation of the Old World custom of ushering in the new year as a parading band of merry celebrators. To this day, they continue that tradition — they just do it on a bigger stage!
When they started, the Mummers would travel door-to-door singing songs to the city’s families on New Year’s Day. Today, the Mummers ring in the New Year with a parade through the streets of Philadelphia.
Fun Fact: The Mummers New Year’s Day Parade is widely believed to be the oldest folk festival in the United States.
What’s It All About?
The Mummers are about community, tradition, family and fun. As a collection, The Mummers are simply a congregation of families and friends coming together to observe and celebrate a holiday in each other’s company.
How Does the Mummers Parade Work?
There are divisions of Mummers, each of which performs according to a different theme on New Year’s Day. They are:
- The Comics, who perform slapstick and satire comedy. You’ll usually see them parody current events and poke fun at pop culture.
- The Wench Brigades pride themselves on performing in the traditional “dress-and-bloomers” suits. Their faces are painted, they carry decorated umbrellas and they are accompanied by a brass band.
- The Fancies are a division of The Mummers whose ornate and elaborate costumes serve as the focal point of their act. They’ll typically have some of the parade’s most glamorous and opulent floats, too.
- The String Bands have one rule: No brass instruments! Banjos, saxophones and percussion instruments dominate their performances. In case you didn’t know, I, Pete Ciarrocchi, am a proud member of the Polish American String Band, which is just one of the many talented string bands in this division.
- The Fancy Brigades make up the largest division. They march to the southernmost tip of the parade route before heading over to the convention center to perform a ticketed show. Their costumes, props, music and other elements make them a big draw for spectators.
Originally, these divisions were just the Comics and the Fancies. However, the popularity of the Mummers Parade has brought in more fans to fill the streets and more participants to make up more divisions since colonial times.
Is There Anything Like the Mummers Anywhere Else?
New Orleans’ Mardi Gras celebration comes closest to mirroring the Mummers New Year’s Day Parade.
While the skyline, Liberty Bell, and Art Museum are the sights of Philadelphia (and Chickie’s & Pete’s famous Crabfries® are the taste of Philadelphia), the Mummers undoubtedly give the city its sound.
So, if anyone ever asks you about what makes Philadelphia great, don’t forget to mention the Mummers!