I just had a brief chance to watch yesterday’s New Year’s Day parade. It is not like when I used to live in Philadelphia and the whole neighborhood waited for the South Philadelphia String Band to perform in front of Saint Gabriel Parish’s Convent.
Really, you knew you were in the midst of die hard, tradition bound, blue collar Irish Catholic ritual when you saw the string band serenading the IHM Sisters before the annual walk up Broad Street.
Of course those were also the days before the anticipated Mass for the Holy Day, so usually the Mummers and their families could also be seen at the 6:00 am Mass on New Year’s Day. The entire neighborhood turned out just to enjoy the music and the excitement before the parade. If you were unable to make the parade…well you could just show up at 29th and Dickinson Streets for a early preview of the music and costumes.
The tradition of the Mummers is rooted in the colonial era custom of parading witches and wenches in costume at the beginning of the new year. The tradition was firmly established in England in the 17th century. Logically it became part of the “colonial-rule” tradition when we were part of the Motherland. Even though we had a Revolutionary War and we fought to disengage ourselves from English traditions and customs…they still seem to pop-up in the colonies, now called the United States.
How fitting to recall the tradition in Philadelphia, which in addition to its status as a leading urban center in British colony days, it was also the first seat of government for the nascent United States. Remembering tradition is an important part of our American heritage, and the Mummers Parade is nothing less than a remarkable journey of tradition, ritual, paganism and symbolism.
New Orleans has Mardi Gras, Nassau has Carnival but Philadelphia will always be the first parade to welcome the new year with the Mummers.