Early this week, CNN’s homepage featured an article titled “‘Mummers’ making a comeback.” What did the national news site have to say about Philly’s 115-year-old New Year’s tradition?
Nothing. Nada. Zilch.
The story wasn’t about our Mummers at all. Philadelphia didn’t even garner a single mention.
To find out what the deal was, Billy Penn reached out to Carl Lavin. Currently CNN’s VP of News & Opinion, Lavin was deputy editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer from 2004 to 2007, so we figured he’d know. But he was unmoved.
“As I read this, it is a feature about one photographer’s project documenting a group in Newfoundland,” Lavin said. “It is not an article about Mummers in various places.”
Oh. So it turns out there’s another place with a custom of dressing up and parading through the streets during the winter holidays. The northern-most province on Canada’s Atlantic Coast had for years banned what it refers to as “mummering,” but the practice is apparently returning to prominence — and in many ways the opposite of what happens in Philly.
Both traditions have the same origin. Holiday shows called Mummers Plays are a centuries-old institution in England and Ireland, and when early settlers and immigrants came across the ocean, they brought the practice with them.
In the New World, those organized plays transformed into much more raucous happenings. During the first half of the 19th century in both Philadelphia and Newfoundland, groups of partiers used costumes ostensibly worn for staged performances as an excuse to rove the streets getting drunk and wreaking havoc. (Some Newfoundland historians attribute the spread of this debauchery to the island state’s relative isolation; what Philly’s excuse is we’re still not sure.)
But the way the two communities dealt with the depraved carousing was very different.
In Philadelphia, the government co-opted the celebration. Starting in the 1880s, groups that wanted to be allowed to continue the custom had to apply for permits from the city, registering with a formal name and appointed leader to be held responsible. All this organization led to the the formal parade that’s been produced by the city every New Year’s Day (excepting rain delays) since 1901, and the formation of regimented clubs whose members perform well-rehearsed skits wearing complex, matching costumes that take months to create.
Costumes in Newfoundland are a bit more relaxed. Ok, a lot more relaxed — to the point where common dress is a tablecloth over your head and a pillow stuffed into your shirt, with perhaps some underwear over top. Anyone can join in the mummering. There’s no clubs, and no set marching route.
That’s because instead of accepting the requirement to get a permit for the holiday revelry into an organized festival, a lot of Newfies flouted law enforcement’s efforts. Instead of becoming a city-sanctioned festival, mummering was banned. The illegal tradition continued throughout the 20th century as an underground activity in some rural towns, but eventually died out — until just recently.
In 2009, a joint project between the Heritage Foundation of Newfoundland and Labrador and Memorial University brought the tradition back with a small, 300-person Mummers Festival. It’s been growing ever since, and now thousands dress in motley attire to traipse incognito through the streets. The multi-day festivities are seen as celebration of local culture and “symbol of regional identity.”
Philly’s Mummers Parade is also a celebration of local culture — although the fact that a lot of that “culture” was racist and sexist has caused problems. (Blackface and brownface still show up in the parade, despite being officially banned in the 1960s, and this year club leaders had to get explicit approval for their themes and undergo mandatory sensitivity training.)
Canadian photographer Darren Calabrese, whose photos are featured in the CNN article, calls mummering unique to Newfoundland. “It’s only in a place like that that something like that could thrive,” he said.
Guess he’s never heard of Philadelphia.