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A Guide to Philadelphia’s Mummers Parade

December 24, 2013 By CityPASS

Strutting down Broad Street in a flurry of sequined, feathered finery and floats, Philadelphia's annual New Year's Day Mummers Parade brings thousands of visitors to the city to see this one-of-a-kind spectacle. In addition to entertaining thousands of native Philadelphians and tourists who come to view the event, the Mummers Parade is more than just a tradition in the City of Brotherly Love -- it's a competition. More than 40 different Mummers clubs scattered throughout Philadelphia showcase elaborate performances to vie for glory and prizes.

Behind the seemingly fleeting burst of pageantry, a lot of planning goes into each and every Mummers parade. Here is a brief look at Philadelphia Mummers history, divisions, and traditions -- offering a peek behind the sequined curtain.

More Than Just One Day

Philadelphia is sometimes referred to as "the city of neighborhoods." Many of these neighborhoods and sections of the city have their own "crews" of clubs that assemble under a larger, Mummers "mother" club to compete in one of four separate divisions.

The New Year's Day Mummers Parade is the culmination of a full calendar year of each club's planning. The estimated amount of time spent on putting together a "typical" Mummers performance each year is 2,000 hours. Each Philadelphia Mummers club devotes a significant amount of time each year to create their ensemble. From designing elaborate costumes, building props and sets, to rehearsing dance and musical numbers, painstaking effort goes into crafting a unique performance around a singular theme. Some past themes include colorful takes on ancient Egypt, cyborgs, the Mayan prophecy, barnyard animals, and even a humorous take on zombies and the undead.

Different Divisions

There are four different types of Mummer divisions that compete for prizes.

The Comic division kicks off the parade's festivities, marching down the street with umbrellas and dressed in loud, clown attire. These brigades lightly poke fun at pop culture, major news events, or just life in-general. The Wenches are an offshoot of the comic division who dress in over-the-top clown drag -- wearing traditional bloomers and dresses -- for comedic value.

The Fancy Brigade is home to the biggest productions and crews. In fact, the Fancy Brigade floats and costumes are often so elaborate that their performances are held and judged indoors. Due to the sometimes harsh Northeast weather, there was a risk that some of these carefully-created floats and delicate costumes could have been damaged by winter wind and weather. Rather than see a year's worth of work sabotaged by Mother Nature, the Brigades now perform inside a local venue.

The Fancy division is a smaller version of the Fancy Brigade. While no less extravagant in performance or costumes, these Fancies have much smaller floats and productions than their Fancy Brigade brethren. They perform a routine to music performed by a live band.

The String Bands division offers more than just strings. This division puts on one of the biggest, most elaborate performances of the entire parade. While banjos, fiddles, and violins are certainly in the mix, String performers also play such instruments as drums, saxophones, accordions, and glockenspiels. The String division's live performance rivals the Fancy Brigade's penchant for over-the-top pageantry.

A Historic Presence in Philadelphia

Although the Mummers are firmly entrenched in the modern fabric of the City of Brotherly Love, these costumed performers have a special place in Philadelphia history, carrying out a tradition that is believed to be the oldest folk festival in the U.S.

Since the colonial era, Philadelphia has been host to a large Swedish population. Their boisterous New Year celebrations were combined with traditional British Mummer plays and performances. Tossed together in a cultural melting pot, these celebrations combined to form a uniquely American tradition. (Even the nation's first president, George Washington, was a fan of the Mummers!)

For a time during the first half of the 1800s, masquerade parades and revelry were banned by the city of Philadelphia. Very few people heeded this edict and it was repealed in 1850. By the time the nation's first centennial rolled around in 1876, the Mummers took part in a parade celebrating the U.S.'s hundredth birthday. In 1901, Philadelphia officially sponsored a Mummers parade and began to award prizes for the best performances.

For more than a century afterward, the parade continued to be a proud Philly tradition, albeit an expensive one. By 2008, total costs to produce the parade and award prizes topped out at $1 million. The city of Philadelphia could only offer $300,000 to offset the cost of the parade that year and wasn't able to offer any funds for the parade in 2009. That year, the Mummers themselves rallied city-dwellers to help raise funds, managing to reel in some celebrity help in the form of Philadelphia-born Kevin Bacon and his brother, Michael. The Bacon Brothers released a special edition CD of their song, "New Year's Day" featuring members of various Mummers string bands. All proceeds from the sale of the single went to the Save the Mummers Fund.

In the ensuing years, various companies and businesses began to sponsor the parade, ensuring that this splashy Philadelphia tradition will delight countless parade-goers for years to come.

This year, the 2014 Mummers Day Parade is being sponsored by Sugar House Casino and will be held on the morning of January 1st. Excited New Year's Day revelers can brave the crowds to view this spectacular up close, or view the parade on local Philadelphia television.

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