Jerome Shea       November 9, 2008      Weekend Wonk

As I watched los matachines make their stately way down Camino del Pueblo in Bernalillo twenty some years ago, it was, as Yogi Berra would say, “déjà vu all over again.” But it did not take me long to make the connection: the Mummers, back in Philadelphia! I was raised just north of the City of Brotherly Love, where the New Years Day Mummers Parade is a big deal—a very big deal. I can still recall as if it were yesterday (well, perhaps the day before yesterday or perhaps last week), the Mummers, thousands strong, strutting up Broad Street, Philly’s main drag, to the tune of “Oh! Dem Golden Slippers.”

A word first, though, about the word, and what a strange word “mummer” is. Is it related to the Middle English “mum,” as in keeping mum (silent)? Some say so, but others tie it to the Greek mommo, a mask (some also make reference to Momus, the Greek god of satire and mockery), and one source settles on the Early New High German mummer, which refers to a disguised person. What strikes me about all this speculation is that any one of those derivations or a combination is fitting: mumming is highly pantomimic and often satire-driven, and mummers revel in disguise and dress-up. The Philadelphia mummers are renowned for their elaborate costumes. In fact, in costume and otherwise, their “New Years Associations” call to mind the “crews” in New Orleans at Mardi Gras, practicing and working all year for that one spectacular day. Make no mistake, this is serious and expensive business.

Mumming (aka Mummer’ Plays) has a very long tradition in the British Isles, going back at least to the Middle Ages. Mummers typically would take to the streets or the pubs around Christmas time. It was a way to cajole money or cakes and ale out of the spectators. But these were not parades, as in 20th century Philadelphia. In fact, here is where things get weird, because these pantomimes involved at the least a Hero—often St. George, England’s patron—a Fool, and, most importantly, a quack Doctor. The Hero is slain, or the hero slays his opponent. That is the Doctor’s chance to rush in with a potion to bring the slain back to life. This is the barest sketch of the long history of mumming as it was practiced in the Isles and as it spread to other parts of the world. The mummers were not as elaborately costumed as in Philadelphia. Often the costumes were as thrown together as what kids wear on Halloween. Some were not even masked. So on the one hand we have something as light-hearted as our own Halloween tradition, trick or treating and all, and on the other hand we have a stark drama of death and resurrection! Nothing that I have read gives a clue as to where this last came from. Some mutter about Frazer’s The Golden Bough and primitive fertility rituals. Others scoff but have nothing to offer in return. Parts of mumming seem closer to los matachines than to the jolly revelers in Philadelphia or the roisterers in New Orleans. Of course, the crews in the Crescent City are having a last hurrah before the season of penitence that leads up to Christ’s death and…oh, but let’s not go there, ok?

The American roots of the Mummers Parade go back to the 17th century and the early settlers in the Philadelphia area. The Swedes who settled along the Delaware River in Pennsylvania (and down into Delaware, the state) had a post-Christmas custom of visiting their neighbors in boisterous groups. Often—how these things do interweave like later, strutting, mummers—the revelers would even satirize the earlier St. George plays! They would shout, they would shoot off muskets (a New Years custom that seems to surface all over the where and the when) and generally make a happy nuisance of themselves. In fact, laws were passed against these annual nuisances, but never enforced. Here is a traditional rhyme by which they announced themselves:

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!

Gradually these makeshifts became more regularized. Clubs began to form and, inevitably, rivalries, the seeds of the intense competition seen today at the New Years parade, with prize money that is substantial but doesn’t begin to cover expenses for the costumes. Categories formed, too: Comics, Fancies, String Bands, and Fancy Brigades.

It’s the string bands that live in my memory. Look! Here they come up Broadway, costumed to the nines, blasting away with that signature minstrel tune and weaving, sashaying, now left and now right in that absurdly wonderful “mummers’ strut,” arms akimbo, chests puffed out, legs stretched impossibly forward. And who would have guessed it would be happening in the staid old Quaker City! Look!

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