How did you spend the first day of 2017? I woke up at 6:30 in the morning and put on a costume, then spent the entire day dancing through the streets of Philadelphia. By the time I returned home, more than 15 hours had passed.
Yep, I was a Mummer this year. After living in the region for nearly two decades and hearing lots of back-and-forth about the city’s New Year’s Day tradition, I joined the Lobster Club, a revival of one of the oldest brigades in the Comics Division.
Here’s 11 things I learned from marching for the first time.
1. Organizing a troupe is hella tough
This is not just a one-day affair. Not all Mummers work “year-round” on their costumes and performances, as the story is usually told, but there’s a ton of effort put in for at least several months leading up to Jan. 1.
I had a bit part this year and still had to dedicate more than a few evenings and weekend days to practice and to sewing my costume — to the point where my husband complained about how much time it was taking up. And I didn’t even contribute to the construction of the handmade props (like the giant fire hydrant that actually sprayed blue confetti) or take part in the main dance choreography.
2. The Wenches don’t mix
Whether you start prep a year in advance or not, just about all Mummer clubs put a lot of labor and care into their costumes and props…except the Wench Brigades. These groups of men pretty much do nothing more than don matching pre-fab dresses and paint a few crude signs — in past years, these have been the ones full of offensive hate speech — then carouse down the street in relatively chaotic fashion.
Basically, the Wenches are a big part of why the parade has a bad reputation. And the rest of the divisions know it. When various Wench brigades crossed paths with other clubs setting up in the staging area, I didn’t see any signs of camaraderie, no nods or congratulations or “Happy New Year!” shouts exchanged. We were all busy working on our last-minute prep. They were likely already drunk.
3. The parade is a logistical nightmare, it’s a miracle it happens at all
Yeah, getting giant groups of non-paid, once-a-year, motley assemblies of people to form a coordinated procession is a logistical feat. From the pre-march staging area on the Ben Franklin Parkway, the whole thing looks like a disorganized mess, full of various vehicles dropping off parts for props as they weave between furious last-minute rehearsals.
4. The judges are not your friend
It’s the judging that forces things into a modicum of a schedule. Each club has a designated time they’re to slated perform, and if you’re not ready to go, the judges will let you hear it. They’ll also start talking trash if your club doesn’t finish on time — we ran a little over and as we were finishing up, our end music was nearly drowned out by announcers adopting a mean chant over the PA system: “Ok Lobsters, you’re finished! You’re done, bye!”
5. It’s much more fun being in the parade than watching it
Dancing down Broad Street after the judging, I felt bad for the spectators.
Comics’ costumes aren’t as ornate as other groups, since the focus is really on the skit, and there were only two designated performance stops along the route. So while I was having a blast as I tossed confetti and twirled my parasol down the median in non-choreographed fashion, I wondered if the people looking on could possibly be as amused as I was.
Plus, sidewalks were packed almost all the way down to Washington Avenue this year — the nice weather helped bring out the crowd — but since brigades end up marching several blocks apart, the street in front of any vantage point is totally empty for a lot of the time.
6. Yes, cops really do ignore open containers during the parade
It’s basically free-for-all time as the clubs march down Broad Street. There were a ton of cops inside the barricades, both local and Homeland Security, and they carefully searched each vehicle for evidence of bombs using dogs and radiation detectors. When it came to open containers, though, they definitely turned a blind eye.
And it’s not just cans of beer. I saw Mummers guzzling champagne, swigging from bottles of locally-made gin and tapping kegs of homebrew along the route, many times directly in front of police. It’s fun if you’re into that kind of thing, but easy to see how some people can push their luck and get sloppy and rude.
7. BYO snacks are key
Seasoned Mummers know the trick that balances the day-drinking: Food. The Lobster Club had three full trays of hoagies stocked on the bus that helped carry the props, as well as boxes of soft pretzels and cases of water. Some people brought homemade snacks, too — I asked one person if he was pulling from a box of cupcakes and he noted they were actually protein-rich omelets, baked into easy, hand-held-eating form.
8. People of color do show up, on occasion
Even though I wasn’t marching anywhere near some of the new troupes with members who were majority non-white, I did see faces of color. I spied several African American parents with kids among the spectators — a change, since many black Philadelphia families used to avoid the parade route entirely — and also a few scattered among the more progressive clubs, like the Lobsters and Rabble Rousers.
9. Taking the party to the neighborhoods is awesome — all clubs should do it
This year, some clubs decided to spread the party through the city instead of just doing the parade route and then heading to Two Street, where the traditional after-party is held.
The Vaudevillians, a Comic Brigade founded in 2007, hosted a party in Queen Village that was also a fundraiser to support maintaining Philly’s Sanctuary City status under the new presidential administration.
Meanwhile, the Lobsters and Rabble Rousers (that group with the poop toilet) planned a joint party that started in Fishtown and ended up in Kensington, where both clubs did an encore show of their performance skits just for neighborhood folks.
10. When you’re marching down it, Two Street is a sea of unending faces
After the Fishtown stop, the Lobsters headed back to Two Street. I had never before attended this notorious gathering, so I was unprepared for how many people it attracts. We got there after dark, so the chill had returned, but it looked like the crowds were bigger than on Broad Street earlier in the day.
The Two Street event is much more regimented than in the past — starting last year, officials line 2nd Street with barricades that keep spectators/partiers away from the Mummer clubs. At least from the perspective of riding a float down the middle of the block, it did not seem like the total shitshow I’d heard about.
11. Your body will hurt the next day, but it’s entirely worthwhile
Yes, strutting around for 15 hours takes a toll on your muscles and mind. I was so sore the next day I could barely move. (Shout out to the Lobster Club member who did the whole darn thing on rollerskates!) But the experience was entirely worth the hurt. Not only did I get to contribute to making this Philadelphia tradition more progressive, I ended up making a ton of new friends along the way.