Imagine scores of people festooned in a dizzying array of bright colors, sequins, feathers and face paint, dancing in unison up a city boulevard. They're playing instruments and performing clown routines, poking fun at everything from political controversies to zoo animals to historical events. If they have a spare hand, it's usually holding a beer. Tens of thousands gather to watch the event and join in the fun.
This is not Mardi Gras. It is not Carnival. It is the Mummers Parade, a New Year's Day tradition in Philadelphia that many historians believe to be the longest-running folk festival in the United States.
Performers number in the thousands and spend months developing and rehearsing routines, building costumes and scenery, and perfecting their “strut”, an official dance move that most Philadelphians can at least mimic if asked. They line up at 6am, often in below-freezing temperatures, and prepare for an entire day of strutting and clowning their way up Broad Street, the city's central boulevard.
“Day drinking” is a hallmark of the event — ubiquitous on the street and easy to spot on Twitter:
I'm so giddy to day drink and lick some strangers (and friends!) teeth today!!!! Wooooooooohhhoooo #Mummers
— Molly Mullen (@goodgolly_missM) January 1, 2014
While some parade goers make a point of getting a good night's rest on New Year's Eve, others choose to “go the distance” and simply keep refilling their glasses through the night and into the morning:
Feel like I was hit with a tractor trailer that stopped, reversed, went side to side then jumped on me but it's all good #MUMMERS
— Tracie (@IWASLIKEYOTRAYY) January 1, 2014
With car traffic blocked for miles, people come to the parade by train, bike, and on foot, donning crazy hats and glasses on top of their winter gear, lugging thermoses of wassail and cases of beer. From a distance, it looks like a goofy, unpretentious, all-around good time.
As a child, I was enticed by the Mummers and very much wanted to see them up close. But my dad informally decreed that we would not go to the parade because it was a racist tradition. He had a point.
Like other carnivalesque rituals in the Americas, the Mummers often embody, or at least dress like, a person or thing they are not. But along with mythical creatures and colorful animals, each year some performers—who are almost all white men—present simplistic, cartoon-like depictions of foreign cultures, “wenches” (see below), and Civil War-era minstrel shows. This is the part of the parade that I, like most Philly natives, can't really get down with.
The parade's signature song dates back to popular 19th-century folk or “minstrel” shows in which white performers depicted slaves of African origin performing slapstick routines, and playing instruments in plantation-like settings. For many Americans (I'd like to think most, but one can't be sure), minstrelsy is a cringe-inducing symbol of the period.
This aspect of the tradition has deep roots. Driven by Irish, Swedish, and German fraternal organizations (then and now), the parade began as a celebration of working-class immigrant culture and a rejection of classist and racial discrimination that pushed these groups to the social and economic margins of the city in the 19th century.
It's no surprise that minstrelsy was originally a part of the Mummers’ tradition. After the Civil War, free blacks came to the city seeking work and competed for jobs with poor ethnic minorities like the Irish. One can imagine why these groups might have romanticized the pre-war past at the turn of the century.
As the parade tradition evolved, some things changed, but not without a fight. In the 1960s, “blackface” paint was officially banned in response to protests by black Philadelphians who argued that the city should not support an event that denigrated its own taxpayers. But old habits die hard—I've been to the last three parades and seen performers wearing something akin to blackface paint at each and every edition, like the man in the photograph at right. In a city that is nearly half African-American and where immigrants from China, Vietnam, the Caribbean, and a range of East African countries make up a sizable chunk of the population, this does not feel okay.
Social media has made it easier to see exactly how Philadelphians feel about this strange celebration — a parallel tradition has evolved in which fiery online debates over representations of race, gender, and social class at the parade light up local blogs and Twitter feeds.
This year, one Twitter user called the parade an “ignorant, cringe-inducing display of stereotypes of people of color.” Another tweeted:
— Jonene (@JTADDEIFLIX) January 1, 2014
Mummers typically justify their continued attachment to these rituals by saying it's “just a joke.” But for many Philadelphians, it's just not funny. In a blistering article on last year's parade, which featured two of the more offensive performances in recent memory, local blogger Joey Sweeney described the parade as “100% backward bullshit, an annual celebration of the white man and his famous burden that has no place in the modern, better iteration of this city.” Readers like Milagros Lopez did not take kindly to Sweeney's diatribe.
“I am a black hispanic female and I do not find any of it offensive,” Lopez responded. “If anything it is silly, inaccurate and a little strange….Let them look like fools. It is only hurting their image and not ours.”
But others felt differently. “You know how upset you are by this article?” wrote Erica Matos. “How targeted and wronged you feel? How misunderstood?…Now, imagine hundreds of people parading these opinions around the streets and rubbing your face in it. That's how people like me, who are of an ethnic minority, feel when we see antics such as these in the Mummers Parade.”
I find myself siding with Matos, and with Twitter users who criticized local government for supporting parade organization, traffic patrol and clean-up. In a city that is too bankrupt to fully support public schools and transit, and where nearly a quarter of the population lives below the national poverty line, you'd think there would be no funding available for this sort of thing. But you'd be wrong.
In the end, after a few years of witnessing the revelry and excess, I feel about the same as my dad does. Should I reject the tradition full out, as I was raised to do? Maybe.
But I'm torn. The truth is that I love the essence of the event — waking up on New Year's Day to a city transformed into a strange world of wild colors and costumes is a magical thing. Being free to take on an imaginary identity for a day and starting the year off with a fantastical escape from reality, rather than a hungover look at the road ahead, feels like a gift. I just don't like the way the Mummers do it. For 2015, I think the solution will be to start my own tradition. A small costume party at my apartment, with lots of music and dancing. And plenty of selfies for my GV friends around the world.