The Mummers Parade is held each New Year's Day in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Local clubs (usually called "Mummers Associations") compete in one of four categories (Comics, Wenches, Fancies, String Bands, and Fancy Brigades). They prepare elaborate costumes and moveable scenery, which take months to complete. This is done in clubhouses, many of which are located on or near 2nd Street (called "Two Street" by some local residents)neighborhood of South Philadelphia, which also serve as social gathering places for members.
History of the Mummers Parade traces back to mid-17th century roots, blending elements from Swedish, Finnish, Irish, English, German and other European heritages, as well as African-American heritage.The parade is related to the Mummers Play tradition from England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Revivals of this tradition are still celebrated annually in South Gloucestershire, England on Boxing Day and in parts of Ireland on St. Stephen's Day.
Swedes, Philadelphia's first settlers, brought the custom of visiting neighbors on "Second Day Christmas" (December 26) with them to Tinicum. This was soon extended through New Year’s Day with costumed celebrants loudly parading through the city.
Traditional New Years' celebrations of firing guns (Swedes and Finns) and recitations of traditional rhymes (English and Welsh) joined common practices of visiting neighbors. The Belsnickle, an early German version of Santa Claus, inspired comic masqueraders riding through Tinicum and Kingsessing dressed as clowns.
George Washington carried on the official custom of New Year's Day calls during the seven years he occupied First White House in Philadelphia. The Mummers continued their traditions of comic verse in exchange for cakes and ale. Small groups of up to twenty mummers, their faces blackened, went door to door, shooting and shouting, spoofing General Washington and the English Mummers' play "St. George and the Dragon".
Philadelphia's 19th century Carnival of Horns drew thousands of merrymakers in festive costumes to the vicinity of Eighth and South Streets in South Philadelphia. An 1808 law decreed that "masquerades" and "masquerade Balls" were "common nuisances" and that anyone participating would be subject to a fine and imprisonment. It was apparently never enforced and was repealed in 1859.
In celebration of the American centennial in 1876, what had been an uncoordinated group of neighborhood celebrations turned into an area-wide parade featuring various mummers’ clubs. In 1901, Philadelphia’s city government decided to sponsor the popular parade, and 42 fraternal organizations received permits to stage a parade in which prizes were awarded for costumes, music, and comic antics.
Southern plantation life’s contributions include the Parade’s theme song, James A. Bland's Oh! Dem Golden Slippers (introduced by Charles Dumont in 1903), as well as the 19th century cakewalk, dubbed the "Mummers' Strut".
Celebrants using firearms to "shoot in" the new year much later inspired the "New Year's Shooters and Mummers Association". Revelers travelling from door-to-door sang and danced for rewards of food and drink. Cash prizes debuted in 1906.
Early Swedish Mummers appointed a "speech director", who performed a special dance with a traditional rhyme:
“ Here we stand before your door,
As we stood the year before;
Give us whiskey; give us gin,
Open the door and let us in.
Or give us something nice and hot
Like a steaming hot bowl of pepper pot!”
The earliest documented club, the Chain Gang, formed in 1840 and Golden Crown first marched in 1876 with cross-town rivals Silver Crown forming soon after. By 1881, a local report said "Parties of paraders" made the street "almost like a masked Ball."
The first official parade was held January 1, 1901. The earliest surviving String Band, Trilby, paraded in 1902. In the early years of the official parade, the make-shift costumes of most celebrants were gradually replaced by more elaborate outfits funded by associations’ fund-raising efforts.
While the Parade has clear African American influences and features a theme song by a black composer, the parade participants are almost all European American.The earliest Parades were not. The all African American Golden Eagle Club, formed in 1866, had 300 members in the 1906 parade. With the nadir, the last black groups marched in 1929.