It was too warm to be January 1st; a balmy breeze blew down Broad Street and the sky was blue. But look around and the scene was unmistakably New Years: sequins, feathers, beer cans in trees, parasols; adults dressed as every possible ridiculous character—French revolutionaries, frogs, legos, snakes. The Mummers.
Last year, after penning a piece in support of the more than 100-year-old tradition and how it was embracing the reality of our city by including a new and more diverse “Philadelphia Division,” the Mummers broke my heart: The Sammar Strutters painted their faces brown and wore sombreros pretending to be “Mexicans”; Finnegan NYA did a skit about Caitlyn Jenner that undermined trans identity—one of their members walked the streets shouting “F*ck the gays”; and a gay man was beaten by a drunk Mummer while walking his dog. At “2 Street” my revelry in being out in the city with strangers I’d never cross paths with in my everyday life mingled with ambivalence when I saw “Wench Lives Matter” signs and young children holding the Finnegan signs with their photos of Jenner and “Call Me Caitlyn” written underneath.
I had written in support of attending public spectacle: “In our houses, we are alone and singular and we know what will happen. In the street, we are Philadelphians, and we don’t.” What happened in the street last year was indeed unexpected, but also painful—a reminder that when you assemble many of our city, what can come leaking out is hate. I returned to the Mummers Parade this year because I still believe that when something is happening in the streets of your city, you go. But I went more cautiously. I went wearing the armor of a citizen who’s been made to feel: This street is not for you. We are not for you.
“We, the Presidents of the five traditional Mummers Divisions, categorically reject expressions of hate and bigotry,” wrote the Mummers-that-be in a November open letter. “Negative behavior and expression have no place in a parade that celebrates family, working people and the hopes for the New Year, particularly in a parade that has come to represent the City of Philadelphia. The few who violated the spirit of the community do not represent the majority. However, even a handful is too many.”
This year, any club with an “ethnic theme” was required to include an advisor from that ethnic group, and each Mummer brigade had to submit the details of their theme and costumes to city officials in advance; if they refused they were excluded from judging. In addition, Philadelphia’s Commission on Human Relations offered optional “sensitivity training” programs on the differences between appropriate and offensive satire for Mummers both online and in bars and community centers throughout the city. And, though the Philadelphia Division was added last year, it went on early in the morning, was the smallest division, and none of the groups were judged and thus didn’t qualify to earn recognition.
This time around, joining Los Bomberos De la Calle (a Puerto Rican Bomba and Plena music group); the San Mateo Carnaveleros (a Mexican-American dance and performance group); Second 2 None (a drill team based in West Philadelphia); and the Miss Fancy Drag Brigade; was Southeast By Southeast, a group honoring Philadelphia’s Southeast Asian population; and the Philadelphia Pan Stars Steel Orchestra, a Trinidadian steel drum band. Any groups in this division were given the opportunity to be judged, and though they didn’t place, several threw their hats in the ring. Second 2 None shone in particular; though fewer in numbers than most traditional Mummer troupes, they had presence—their steps tightly in synch, their sticks moving faster than seemed possible to create a full sound that filled the judging area at JFK plaza. It is integral that people of color feature prominently in a New Year’s parade that purports to represent our city, which is 44 percent black. Too bad that the Philadelphia Division still goes first, however, which means that most folks aren’t up early enough to see them.
You could look at this scene as one of silly fratboy-esque drunkenness, privilege and entitlement. You could look at this scene as pure and unbridled energy, as a disruption of business as usual for an essential purpose: Hope. It is both, it is always both.
Next came Golden Sunrise, the only remaining Fancy Club to march, as the Fancy Brigades have moved inside to the Convention Center. As parade attendance has dwindled and economic times have become tight, many clubs have transitioned to become comics or wenches, opting for their far simpler and cheaper costumes. Golden Sunrise is the last Mummer troupe carrying forward the old traditions of intense, ornate and heavy costumes and set pieces worn on their backs and shoulders like backpacks. The result was stunning. As a solo Mummer in a sequined suit large as a trailer turned the corner onto Broad Street, taking up nearly the whole marching space, a young black girl summed up the crowd’s feeling as she turned to her mother and said, “Wow, he’s beautiful.”
The Wench Brigades in their telltale matching suit dresses were relatively well-behaved this year, which some say was the result of tight supervision. A member of the Froggy Car brigade tweeted that police had told him he could be arrested if he did not put down a sign he was carrying that showed the crying face of Michael Jordan on the shoulders of Hillary Clinton. City spokesman Mike Dunn told PHL17, “City officials reviewing the divisions as they assembled Sunday morning found that approximately five Mummers had makeup and signs that did not conform with previously agreed-upon standards.” Several groups poked fun at what they felt to be this theme of over-sensitivity. One group performed with their mouths covered in black tape and titled their skit “Strutting with Sensitivity,” another wench carried a sign that read, “I Flunked Sensitivity Training.”
The Comics was the most varied and dynamic group, and by their hour many had rolled out of bed and the crowds had swelled to more boisterous proportions. The Sammar Strutters, who last year offended with their brownface “Mexican” routine came out this year dressed as droves of panda bears. A part of me wondered if this clearly safe choice meant something of the raw spirit of the Mummers was being lost. But the crowd smiled and cheered and the Strutters high-fived each other. If something was being lost, it wasn’t joy.
Like our country, the Mummers fans may be impossibly divided, but at times their concerns and allegiances bleed into each other.
Two younger troupes of 20-something artists—the Vaudevillians and The Rabble Rousers—performed satirizing narrative skits. The Vaudevillians told a story in which a world of feral cats is being overtaken by gray Trump Towers of racism, misogyny, xenophobia and hatred. But then the cats rebel—Mummers dressed as pink fuzzy cats turned the grey towers into multi-colored pillars that read “sanctuary.” This kind of skit seemed like a fantastic compromise, a middle ground between safety for all and the Mummers’ signature sparkle. In the Rabble Rousers’ skit, a Mummer dressed as poop sat inside a huge toilet set piece and Mummers dressed as stereotypes of Mummers milled around, filmed by fake cameras. It was meant to be self-referential, a critique of the parade itself. Girlfriends turned to boyfriends and wrinkled their brows. Children pointed at their feathery bird suits and cheered. Whether the crowd was reacting to the message or to the costumes—parody or not, they were stunning—was hard to discern and felt almost beside the point.
As the day darkened and grayed, I made my way south along Broad Street. By now, revelers had stuck beer cans on tree branches, confetti in the shape of tiny hockey sticks covered the sidewalks and a Mummer dressed as a Samoan stood in front of a String Band Mummer with her sheet music strapped to her chest, who stood in front of a young black boy blasting Drake from his phone, who stood in front of a blond mom with her two-year old in a snuggie. The Fancy Brigades intermingled with String Bands marched by.
At one point, the South Philadelphia Vikings, who would go on to take first place at the convention center with their theme, “It’s All in the Mime,” sauntered by in a combination of French mime outfits, costumes made entirely from pieces of reflective material, and friends and family simply wearing Vikings jackets and hoodies as if they were representing a national sports team. As they paused at the intersection of Christian and Broad, their flatbed truck blasted the old 76ers Anthem ”Stomp your feet Philadelphia!” A dance party broke out—the barriers were lighter this far south, and the Vikings joined with revelers and two city cops in a big circle to move to the beat. A black woman took a picture family of her four daughters with a Viking. “We live in this city,” she told me. “We come every year. It’s art. Look at that one. They’re so beautiful.”
An old man with a deeply-lined face stood talking to his granddaughter who wore the yellow and orange polyester suit of the Oregon NYA wenches. The grandfather wore her winning ribbon for her. Underneath his feet was a sign that read, “Mayor Kenney: Make the Mummers Great Again.” Without further context it was impossible to say whether this sign was meant to ask Kenney to restore the Mummers to their previous state of unrestrained freedom or whether its author was praising our Mayor for his efforts to keep the Mummers popular, sustainable and positive. Like our country, the Mummers fans may be impossibly divided, but at times their concerns and allegiances bleed into each other.
As the Vikings turned east down Washington Avenue, I spotted a fellow who loves the Mummers for another reason—he collects cans for coins and the day’s revelry brings a healthy supply of them. He had filled a jumbo shopping cart with abandoned beer cans and then stacked three black oversized trash bags on top of his cart as well. He watched the sequins and feathers with a bored expression.
Late into the night, after I had given up on 2 Street, I re-tread this stretch of Washington Avenue, but this time, heading west towards home. It’s this time of the night that Mummer troupes, aboard Penske trucks that hold speakers and cases of beer, head to 2 Street and are cheered along their southward route. As I walked along the sidewalk, a group of Mummers dressed as French Revolutionaries in gold outfits and white wigs walked and danced along behind a heavy-duty pickup truck that blasted pop music and held several more Mummers in its bed. The truck rolled slowly along Washington Avenue, not yet inside official Mummerland. Passersby stopped to look, cars rolled down their windows and gently nudged out of the way to allow this truck and its unusual cargo.
You could look at this scene as one of silly fratboy-esque drunkenness, privilege and entitlement, of how the celebration of one segment of our city is sanctioned while the celebrations of others are not or are sometimes even punished. You could look at this scene as pure and unbridled energy, as a disruption of business as usual for an essential purpose: Hope. Hope in a time where there seems to be little hope for everyone, whatever side you are on. I don’t know how to look at it. All I know is this: Many people smiled, many people danced. Many people honked their horns. It is both, it is always both.Header photo: Kaytee Ray-Riek