By Tom Beck
As New Year’s Day approaches, it’s getting to be that time of year again: Mummers season. This year, the Mummers will celebrate their 117th year of officially being recognized by the city. The first time was in 1901. However, that number 117 doesn’t exactly do the Mummers justice — the tradition is in fact way older than that, as the Mummers have been associated with Philadelphia ever since European settlers from Sweden, Germany and England came over in the late 1600s and early 1700s, according to Steve Highsmith, the longtime PHL17 broadcaster who has broadcasted every Mummers parade on the network since 1992 except one.
“The Irish, Italian, Polish immigrants of the mid-1800s to the mid-1900s had a huge influence on Mummering,” said Highsmith, referring to a period in which the Mummers began to evolve and become increasingly like the parade we see today. “It was sort of the next shot in the arm if you will — an infusion of new traditions or different takes on existing common traditions.”
Highsmith notes African American music and dancing had a large influence on the parade as well during this period.
“In the 1900s, you saw sort of the ascendancy of Mummering as a parade when it formally came together in 1901,” said Highsmith. “With the feminist movement in the late 1960s and 1970s, [the tradition] began to see the infusion of women into the parade and the positive impact that that has had on the parade over the course of time as the influence of women has rightfully increased. And so now you have a fairly vibrant parade from a male-female standpoint.”
However, some clubs, including the Jokers, Shooting Stars and a number of string bands are still all-male.
All of the clubs were male-only until two women broke the Mummers’ gender barrier in 1975.
According to Highsmith, the original Mummers were comics.
“Comics were the ones who simply went out on the street and often right in front their own house or at a local tavern and just performed skits,” said Highsmith. “It could be one person, two or three people, [or] it could be a small group of people based on the school they went to or the church they were involved in or some other groups. Over the 1800s, for example, you had union dock workers [who] would sometimes organize along their lines. So if they were unloading turnips for example they might call themselves something related to a turnip or the red onions, for example. Mummery today is still largely connected to that.”
In 2015, the city, which runs the parade, added a sixth division to the previous five (Comics, Fancies, the Wench Brigade, the String Bands and the Fancy Brigade Divisions) called The Philadelphia Division, which was an attempt to make the parade more diverse by adding groups with more minorities. However, the division lasted only one year, and was abolished when they city decided a much better idea would simply be to take the groups from the Philadelphia Division and find spots for them in the existing five other divisions.
“After they had the experience of the Philadelphia Division they said ‘well that’s good, we like the clubs, but it would be even better if they were throughout the parade not just at the start of the parade,’” said Highsmith. “That’s why they said, ‘well we don’t need a Philadelphia division, let’s just put them in the divisions that already exist.’”
The String Band Division, which is arguably the most competitive, has been dominated by Fralinger String Band and Quaker City String Band over the course of the “last generation,” Highsmith said. He noted that high-profile string bands such as Fralinger or Quaker City will routinely spend six figures on a performance.
“That’s a lot of work,” said Highsmith. “The members pay dues and that’s why they have to work, in many cases, throughout the year on weekends. A few of them [will] show up at a dinner or something where they get paid a few hundred bucks because they’re fundraising all the time to try and make [the New Year’s Day performance] happen.
Highsmith highlighted the strong sense of community Mummers have, and how it infiltrates the personal lives of everybody who’s associated with the parade.
“If a family member dies, they’re there, and that club goes to the viewing, and it goes to the funeral, and it performs a serenade for that family,” said Highsmith. “There’s a personal tradition. It’s not an exclusive one. It’s just that this is just who they are and that’s what they know. And they support each other that way.”
Sometimes, Highsmith said, Mummers can be painted with a broad brush.
“The Mummers view themselves from a different prism. It’s personal to them and it’s personal to within their own degrees of separation in their family or their friends,” said Highsmith. “They have a common bond and they get a common benefit from being together. And they support each other in times of tragedy and it’s all personal.”