i can't let the month of january go by without writing something about the new year's day mummers' parade in philadelphia - "place where I was partly raised."
every january 1st my mother and grandmother, or if my father were home from sea, my father would take me 'downtown' on the subway to stand in the freezing cold and wind on Broad Street, sometimes in snow flurries, to see the Mummers' Parade. All of us kids in Philly could do the Mummers' Strut, but not all of us participated in the parade. That privilege was reserved for people, sometimes whole families, who belonged to the various clubs, often neighborhood or ethnic community organizations, which prepared costumes, music, routines and themes all year long for the coming of the great New Year's Day parade.
We participated by *being there,* by getting cheered up, entertained, and entranced. My mother's favorites were the string-bands. Their performance was often in question if the weather was less than pristine, and so we would strain our ears to hear them approaching. We could hear them before we could see the round, square or oval backboards with their bright colors, magical feathers and sparkling baubles, approaching in ranks to the accompaniment of up-beat string music.
Looking back from here I can see what a dynamic, magical, positive start the Mummers' Parade gave us every New Year.
My mother wanted me to grow up as a Catholic so I think she downplayed the significance in our lives of the paganesque Mummers' Day ritual. Although many of the Mummers are also from Catholic backgrounds, I think it goes without saying that the roots of mummery, both in Europe and America, go back to pre-Christian cultures that were absorbed into Catholicism. Similar activities include Louisiana's Mardi Gras and other Caribbean and east coast festivals of mummery, and are found notably also in Ireland, Sweden and Russia, to my knowledge.
The root neighborhoods of the Shooters (the original name of those later called 'Mummers' by outsiders) were in the old formerly native american enclaves in Philadelphia where mixed European-African-Native American people worked along the river, later to be joined by many European immigrants and melded into what I call 'old Philadelphians' (not referring to the so-called 'first proprietor' family lines here). Anyway, people often trace the start of the Shooters to the 'Swedes' who lived down there along the river, but of course, the early swedes in Philly - people who arrived in the early 1600's - were *men* who created children with 'someone' (native american women?) who were later self-identified as Swedes. but of course, my pleas for native-american/european contributions to early american society seem to be falling into thin air. nevertheless, i state my paltry case yet again.
The overall impression of the Mummers on my psyche can be summed up in this list of words: exciting, beautiful, musical, spherical, wheels, whirling, spinning, rotating, ringing, revolving, pivoting, circulating, curved, ruffled, bulbous, annular, dome-shaped, sickle-shaped, colorful, gyrating, laughing, arching, curving, crescent-shaped, glittering, gleaming, comical, imaginative, arciform, circular, coiled, waving, dancing, and finally last but not least, strutting!
there are quite a few good resources out there on the Mummers of Philly. I'll just list a few:
the Mummers' Museum, available online
Strut! a DVD by Robert Downey Jr's father, Robert Downey Sr, a must for all Mummers' fans with footage of the 2000 parade
Oh! Dem Golden Slippers, by Claude Welch, an excellent older book on the subject - the classic!
Life, Liberty and the Mummers, by E.A. Kennedy III, an African-American author from New Orleans who became interested in the subject and who features oodles of photos and also some very interesting text
The Philadelphia Mummers, Building Community through Play, by Patricia Anne Masters, mostly text, perhaps a doctoral dissertation looking at the working-class roots of Philly's Mummers, a good read