Mummers 101: Everything you need to know about Philly’s infamous New Year’s tradition

The parade has been happening for more than a century, and though there are ongoing efforts at reform, it shows no signs of slowing down.

A scene from the 2020 Mummers Parade

A scene from the 2020 Mummers Parade

Michael Reeves / Billy Penn

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There’s only one city in the world where New Year’s Day brings 10,000 people marching down the main boulevard in elaborate, sequined costumes.

The Mummers Parade has been an annual Philly tradition since 1901. But even if you live in Philadelphia, the event, its purpose, and its myriad divisions can be difficult to grasp — especially because it’s become mired in controversy. The parade has repeatedly made international news for instances of racism, sexism, and transphobia.

So buckle up: Here’s everything you need to know about the Mummers and Philadelphia’s famous New Year’s Day parade.

How and when did this Mummers business get started?

A long, long time ago, before there was a United States, Swedish immigrants introduced Mummery to Philadelphia. It started in the late 17th century as an old tradition of visiting friends in the days after Christmas, extending all the way to New Year’s, and celebrating by dressing up as though it were a masquerade party.

Within 100 years or so, these activities became more official, and the name “The New Year’s Shooters and Mummers Association” was given. Most of the participants hailed from the South Philly neighborhoods Moyamensing and Southwark, according to Patricia Masters’ book “The Philadelphia Mummers: Building Community Through Play.” Philadelphia made the Mummers Parade an official, sanctioned event on New Year’s Day 1901, and it’s taken place ever since — except for weather postponements and the 2020 COVID cancellation.

Though considered by many a Philly cultural staple, the parade has a racist history and roots in minstrelsy. It often features skits that take on political topics, sometimes garnering national attention — and not in a good way.

So is it a Philly-only thing?

History traces Mummers-esque activities all the way back to the Ancient Egyptians. And they’ve popped up in America before. Back in the 1700s, Christmas was apparently frowned upon by the upper class. To get around the anti-Christmas attitude, members of the lower class in Boston would celebrate by essentially performing mummery — going door to door in elaborate costumes asking for money.

But the Mummers don’t exist like this anywhere else in the U.S. right now, although some Canadians still participate in Mummers activities the day after Christmas.

mummersparade2019-michaelreeves-billypenn-06
Michael Reeves / For Billy Penn

How does the parade work?

The different clubs and divisions of Mummers dance, strut, perform and, in the case of the String Band division, play instruments. They’re rated near City Hall by an anonymous group of judges. Mummers from the Fancy Brigades also perform skits in the Convention Center.

There are five Mummer divisions: Comic, Wench Brigades, Fancy Division, Fancy Brigades and String Bands. And within the separate divisions, there are about 40 total clubs that can have as many 65 people. Here’s how they break down:

Comic: Considered the traditional Mummers. They make fun of news or pop culture through skits and themes and often dress as clowns.

Wench Brigades: An offshoot of the Comic division. They portray a central theme through costume also intended to be funny. They’re pretty much men dressed like women and though they’re named after medieval women they trace their origins back to 19th century-era plantation women.

Fancy Division: Known for the most elaborate costumes. Like so elaborate you’ll feel like you’re in the song “Yellow Submarine.”

Fancy Brigades: They’re a spinoff of the Fancy Division, also known for elaborate costumes. They perform 4.5 minute broadway-style skits inside the Convention Center.

String Bands: The Mummers who strut and play music at the same time (now that’s a skill). They use instruments like saxophones, banjos, accordions, violins and various percussion instruments.

What exactly do the Mummers wear?

Sequins are a good place to start. According to a Visit Philly miniseries, the costumes used to be made out of cotton, but evolved to become fancier and fancier and are now often made from satin and include mylar and metallic touches. Feathers are popular too, from birds like roosters and ostriches.

The costumes are expensive, though. The most extravagant costumes can cost up to $10,000, and costumes for 65-person clubs can cost close to $100,000.

Want to see a good example? Peep Jason Kelce’s outfit from the 2018 Eagles Super Bowl parade.

Mummers Parade 2019

Mummers Parade 2019

Michael Reeves / For Billy Penn

Why would anyone spend thousands of dollars just to look flamboyant one day of the year?

First of all, there’s no rule saying you can’t wear those outfits pictured above on any other day of the year. Buuuuut it’s not recommended. So yes, Mummers spend heaps of dough that they raise from their communities, sponsors, various performances or even philanthropic organizations. They do it because it’s fun and for bragging rights and for family traditions. If you’re not a Mummer, you probably wouldn’t get it. The city used to dole out $150,000 in prize money but not anymore.

Does the city pay for the parade?

Yes — though the exact number has fluctuated in the last decade.

Up until the 2000s, the city would kick in as much as $1 million to fund security, cleanup and prizes for the Mummers Parade.

But when the recession hit in 2008, Philly slashed the Mummers’ funding, and started contributing just $300,000 to the event. To make up for the lost funding, Mummers have gotten sponsorships from corporations like Southwest Airlines and Rivers Casino (formerly known as SugarHouse).

The city’s contribution has gone up recently. In 2019, Philly paid $361,000 for city services at the event, per spokesperson Irene Contreras Reyes.

Mummers Parade 2020

Mummers Parade 2020

Michael Reeves / Billy Penn

How long does the parade last?

For seven or eight hours. But they used to be much longer. In 2003, the Mummers were told to speed it up in order to appeal more to spectators. Back in the ’80s and ’90s, parades went on for 10 hours or longer. In 1989, the parade lasted longer than 14 hours.

Though the event has historically has attracted many families who watch together, it’s also known as a place to continue celebrating the New Year. As in, they drink. Openly. On the sidewalk. Each year there are myriad photos of people toasting with beers and booze as parade security strolls by. Police have also been known to get into the mood and jump into dances or otherwise celebrate with spectators.

Who becomes Mummers?

It’s a family tradition. Mummers usually get introduced to the activity from relatives. About 10,000 Mummers participate in the annual parade, according to the group’s official website.

Most of them are men. Women didn’t participate in the parade until 1975, when two teenage girls played in Crean String Band, breaking the gender barrier. But it’s not like the Mummers have become a melting pot of the sexes. In 1996, it was considered a big deal when about 10 percent of all string band performers were women. Further, some male Mummers acknowledged women were added largely because of declining membership, not because they particularly wanted to open up the parade to women.

The parade has diversified since then. Since 2015, hundreds of diverse new members have joined the festivities, including a Puerto Rican troupe, a Mexican band with dancers, an LGBTQ troupe, a Trinidadian band and a Black drill team.

Mummers Parade 2017

Mummers Parade 2017

Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

What controversies have they caused?

More than you could count. In addition to sexism, the Mummers have been guilty of racism in their performances. Like their minstrel roots, they’re often called out for using blackface. In 1964, it took a court order to get them to stop doing it during their performances.

But some refused to comply, continuing to apply blackface in the parade when they marched through predominantly Black neighborhoods.

It didn’t stop there. Since then, the Mummers have been called out for offensive performances regularly. Some of those instances:

Didn’t a Mummer get arrested recently?

Which one are you talking about? Former director of the Mummers Parade Lee Dignam pleaded guilty earlier this year to wire fraud and embezzlement during his time at Philly Parks & Rec.

Before that, a well-known Mummer and his daughter were arrested and charged in 2014 with brutally attacking a person experiencing homelessness in Queen Village. And there was also the sex work scandal from 2011.

Mummers Parade 2019

Mummers Parade 2019

Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

Have they done anything to try to fix their problems?

Sure, sorta. After the transphobic skit in 2016, all the Mummers had to undergo a “sensitivity training” and the parade continued to diversify. In past years, they’ve gathered Mummers judges before the parade and begged them to be nicer to performers.

Meanwhile, some of those performers are trying to change the parade from the inside. There have emerged progressive and racially integrated troupes, like the Vaudevillains, the Rabble Rousers and the Lobster Club.

Antoine Mapp is the director of the 28-person Black drill team West Powelton Drummers, which joined the Mummers festivities more than five years ago.

“[The judges] might not understand what we do because we’re not a traditional Mummer group,” Mapp told Billy Penn in 2019. “We don’t march with our legs up high. We urbanize it, we make it cool for the kids in our community that want to do it.”

If I still want to go, where can I watch it?

The Mummers perform their acts and get judged near City Hall. If you want to see that up close, you’ll have to buy tickets online for bleacher seats. But the rest of the parade is free. Go stand somewhere along Broad Street between City Hall and Washington Avenue, and you’ll catch the action. It will likely be less crowded the farther south you go.

And if you’re not into actually seeing the parade, but want to party: just head over to Two Street, around Mifflin or about anywhere south of Washington. 

It will also be televised on PHL 17. Or you can stream it here.

Mummers Parade 2017

Mummers Parade 2017

Steven Humphrey

Will the Mummers Parade last forever?

Who’s to say? The Mummers are already an institution older than our country. And as we all know, traditions are slow to die in Philadelphia.

That said, the Mummers are facing a bit of a crisis at this moment. Participation in the parade is dropping. In 2020, Mayor Jim Kenney ordered the Mummers to finally cut out the blackface — or else he’d cancel the parade altogether.

“The future of the parade is in jeopardy,” Kenney wrote in letters to the heads of the Mummers divisions, “if Mummers leadership does not make immediate changes to better control the parade.”

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Parades