Growing up in Gray’s Ferry always included memories of the annual New Year’s Day parade. Saint Gabriel Parish always had the South Philadelphia String Band within the parish boundaries. The members of South Philly…were parishioners that hailed from a variety of professions. Some were welders, some were plumbers, others refinery workers, or chemical manufacturing workers or a long list of municipal servants from policemen to firemen to building code inspectors…as a whole however they were the men that diligently worked all year to bring melodious tunes and strutting golden slippers to the City of Philadelphia. Gray’s Ferry especially Saint Gabriel Parish uniquely hosted these men as they prepared for the New Year’s Day walk up Broad Street. In a lot of cases many of the “Mummers” attended Church at Saint Gabriel, were part of the serenading entourage that provided the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary at Saint Gabriel Convent a premature glimpse of the costumes and the musical renditions.
I am not sure if the string band still uses the auditorium at Saint Gabriel for practice sessions that prepare the strutting strummers for the New Year’s celebration. Regardless, such cooperation between parish and community organization always permitted me to develop a strong appreciation of the “grass roots” that develop and grow a parish faith community. In Gray’s Ferry the traditions of New Year’s celebration were exhibited on a year long basis as members of the faith community helped each other prepare for the New Year’s revelry. Regardless of occupations…sons and daughters of the parish all contributed towards the success of the celebration. That is really what I miss the most about living in a Catholic parish community…the neighborhood identity, the ethnic Irish celebrations, the distinctly Catholic activities and the spirit of communal participation that transcended generations of fathers, sons and grandsons…all engaged in the annual ritual of New Year’s celebration.
The Mummer’s tradition is historically rooted in bands of Irish minstrels that used to perform songs and dances in return for donations from the village people. Quite often, there was some Druidic influence on the nature of these celebrations. However with the rise of Christianity in the British Isles…this Celtic Mummery evolved into a celebratory parade that embraced Catholic and Celtic traditions.
There is nothing like hearing a string band marching up the street…and hearing the tunes that make everyone want to dance…even just a bit on New Year’s Day. When you grow up in Gray’s Ferry…you have to at least know how to raise your hands and strut…like the generations of Mummers that strutted before you. It is a sign of our heritage, a sign of our Irishness and a sign of our Christianity…celebration of God’s gift of life through song, dance and music!
I can here the fading notes every year…..Oh them Golden Slippers….reminding everyone that community participation and celebration are well rooted in the history of Gray’s Ferry and it’s multicultural generations of celebrating residents.

Hugh McNichol writes a blog: http://graysferrygrapevine.blogspot.com that reflects on growing up Irish Catholic in Philadelphia’s Gray’s Ferry section.

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