Mummers’ Mardi Gras Parade in Manayunk set for Sunday

The Woodland String Band performs during the 2016 Philadelphia Mummers Mardi Gras Parade in Manayunk. 

Our leaders at City Hall or thereabouts have announced that there will be no 2021 Mummers Parade. This is the Philadelphia equivalent of the trees not getting leaves in the spring.

Under the anti-epidemic rules founded mostly on informed guessing, our city leadership has decreed that there will be no large public gatherings until Feb. 28.
That includes the extravagant gathering, more than just a parade, on which dozens of Mummers are already working. The vicissitudes (I love that word) of newspaper production cause me to write this diatribe well before it’s published. But as of this writing, the Feb. 28 ban applies.
Assuming that the nasty little viruses will go out of business promptly on that date, will we celebrate with a Mummers Parade on the first of March?
It was kind of Mayor Kenney, I suppose, to announce the cancelation now. Mummers are already hard at work designing and creating costumes in such prize categories as King Jockey and Trio Pantomime Clown and other things the average parade spectator never heard of.
The string band leaders are deciding their themes, choosing their music, designing their costumes, and building props, and many are already practicing their music and their dance steps.
A lot of them are fathers and sons. Many are Mummers because their fathers were. Or their grandfathers. Or further back. It can be a deep family tradition.
When I was a boy, a young string band captain lived around the corner from us. His wife had a baby.
On New Year’s Day, he carried his new baby son in a rig on his chest as he led his band, dancing up Broad Street. There was much gossipy neighborhood criticism of his exposing his new little son to the weather on that long parade on a cold winter’s day.
Not long after, word went around that the baby boy had passed away. It had been known from birth that the child had a fatal condition and would not live long. But his father made sure the boy became a Mummer.
The organized and city-sponsored parade is officially 120 years old. There have been occasional variations, caused by such reasons as a period when frivolities of that sort were banned on Sundays. But the parade has been entirely cancelled only twice, in 1919 and 1934.
In 1919, the First World War was in progress, and most young men were wearing army boots, not golden slippers. The Depression was fully depressed in 1934, and in weeks when my father wasn’t working we had fried eggs for dinner from our two back yard chickens. Who could afford to parade?
The city-sponsored New Years parade was just the latest manifestation of a custom that went back to the beginnings of Philadelphia.  Swedes were here before the British took over, and they celebrated the arrival of a new 17th century year with costumes and visits to neighbors and all sorts of fol-de-rol.
The British had similar New Year traditions, with costumed folk going door to door, reciting poetry and expecting to be rewarded with something from the punch bowl.
The evolution of the celebrating, and the origin of that later major component, string bands, is a long story.
It’s the 21st century now, and the era of coronavirus. Wouldn’t the Mummers and the city leaders be able to have the parade perform in the convention center or an empty stadium, and televise it? Just think of the fancy masks Mummers would wear.

Visit columnist Jim Smart’s web site at jamessmartsphiladelphia.com.

 
 

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