On New Year’s Day, around the world, you might find people sleeping in and recovering from the night before. However, in Philadelphia, you will find sequins, feathers and a city-wide celebration. This is because, on the first of every year, center city Philadelphia closes down for the annual Mummers Parade.
Groups of men and women, called Mummers, dress in elaborate costumes and perform routines that they spent the entire year preparing. Their performances are based on whether the club is competing in the comics, fancies, string bands or costumes categories.
After being judged the clubs march back to their clubhouses on 2nd Street, fondly called “two street” by the locals, where they play music, dance and drink. The crowd of spectators loyally follows them and joins in the celebration.
Recently the extravagant outfits the Mummers wear gained national attention when Philadelphia Eagles player Jason Kelce, donned one of the costumes for the team’s Super Bowl parade, where he delivered a nationally televised speech.
The exuberant tradition dates back 118 years to the first parade in 1901. The event is a family affair for many people from Philadelphia and the surrounding suburbs.
Kathleen Petrucelli, a Southern New Jersey native, says she has a deep connection to the parade. “I started going with my family when I was very young because my grandfather was a bartender at one of the string band’s clubhouses,” said Petrucelli. “I still go every year with my friends. I love it because when Duffy String Band plays it feels like a tribute to my grandfather.”
Gabe Paoletti attended his first Mummers Parade when he was only three months old and has returned nearly every year since. “I see old friends and family,” he says “it is truly a sense of community where everyone is happy to be there and see each other.”
The idea of family also stretches into the actual Mummers clubs. Someone cannot just decide they want to sign up to be a Mummer, people are invited into the clubs by their family or close friends. These lineages sometimes date back generations.
Carolyn Kane sees this firsthand. “My dad and two older brothers are all a part of the Froggy Carr Wench Brigade,” Kane says. “The absolutely love it. Their group is there to have a good time, drink together and share the excitement of the new year.”
The topic of drinking came up in every person’s commentary about the Mummers. It seems as if the two go hand-in-hand, unimaginable that you could have one without the other. Even though there are annually very few arrests on the popular day, many people feel as if the heavily alcoholic event is a negative representation of the city.
For Annie Gama the heavy alcohol consumption deterred her from attending the parade for the majority of her life, preferring to wait until she was of the legal drinking age.
“Obviously I recognized that drinking is a big part of the parade,” she said laughing. “Quite possibly the main part for some people. I basically waited to go so I could fully experience it and have a good time while I am there.”
All of the alcohol may have played a role in her parents not taking her to the parade she said. “I mean it probably played a part in their decision, but I think it was more because of the fact that it was never a personal tradition for them,” she said. “That along with the fact it is cold on New Year’s Day in Philly, maybe that’s why the alcohol is so important,” she said.
Petrucelli looks beyond some people’s fixation on the alcohol. “It is about so much more than drinking, some of these clubs spend the whole year perfecting their routines and costumes,” she says. “They might drink a lot afterward on Two Street but it is because they are celebrating a performance well done.”
The individual Mummers’ alcohol consumption has been blamed for various incidents in the past. In the 1990s the Frogger Carr group sat down in the middle of the street and stopped the entire parade because the police confiscated their beer truck. They stayed there until the police backed down and gave it back.
Kane laughs when asked about the incident. “What can I say? I told you they are there to have a good time. Don’t mess with their alcohol.”
More recently the scandals have mainly revolved about various Mummers groups choosing offensive themes for the skits they perform. In 2016 one group dressed up as stereotypical Mexicans, complete with brown face. The same year the Finnegan New Years Brigade’s skit depicted Bruce Jenner transitioning to Caitlyn Jenner with negative LGBT signs.
These offensive displays have driven many people, primarily minority groups, to call for cancelling the annual parade. In a statement to the Philadelphia Tribune, Shani Akilah, a member of the Black and Brown Workers Cooperative, called for the city to shut down the parade.
“We are demanding a divestment by the city — that means no more resources towards spaces like the Mummers, where people get to show up in blackface and call it creativity,” she said.
Philadelphians have had to consider whether tradition should trump discrimination. Some do not believe so and then some, like Petrucelli, believe that “not all traditions can be changed to please everyone.”
Some who support the event do not think a few negative people should represent the parade as a whole. “It is a giant cultural situation so it is expected that there will always be people who act out,” says Paoletti, “but I don’t think they should represent the overall positive environment the parade provides.”
As of right now, the 2020 Mummers parade is still scheduled for Jan. 1. Devoted fans are bound to show up. Gama is one of them. “When I told people that last year’s parade was my first I would be handed a beer or a huge high five saying ‘well I’m glad you finally made it, see you back here next year,’” she says smiling, “I can’t let the Philadelphia family down.”