By Cassie Hepler
Welcome to one of Philadelphia’s oldest and strangest traditions. It’s the only time of year where adult, uber-straight men can dress up in elaborate costumes – and women’s clothing – and strut down Broad Street in all their glory. And not surprisingly, the drag queens have been recently welcomed back to the show (hello Philly Drag Mafia) thanks to LGBT trailblazer Ian Morrison/Brittany Lynn.
The official Mummers Parade is held each New Year’s Day in Philadelphia and is a day-long drinking and revelry occasion downtown and in South Philly, which is believed to be the oldest folk festival in the U.S. However, this year they added on ADVENT’s first Mummers Mardi Gras Parade in Manayunk. Sponsors, volunteers, the Manayunk Development Corporation, Congressman U.S. Rep. Robert Brady (who helped in 2010 to establish the nonprofit Greater Philadelphia Traditions Fund for private donations), The Philadelphia Police, the Mummers and Yunkers who enjoyed a brand-spanking new tradition on the fringe of the city of Philadelphia.
Each New Year, local clubs compete in one of four categories: comics, fancies, string bands and fancy brigades. They prepare painstakingly elaborate costumes with moveable backdrops, which take months to complete. Most are done in clubhouses – many of which are on or near 2nd Street (called “Two Street” by South Philadelphians). As an Eastern European Irish and Italian tradition (just like Native American and African tribes wearing elaborate costumes with dance), immigrants who once populated South Philadelphia, forming the Mummers and parade revelers on Broad Street and South Philly. As these groups have begun to be gentrified, local ties to the parade have weakened. This past year, a slew of controversy ensued as the route was changed to a more Center City (i.e. tourism happy) heavy route. Some Mummers performed almost protest-worthy struts this past year such as fake butts mooning the TV cameras in response to the forced route change.
The dwindling support prompted the addition of the Manayunk Mardi Gras parade so the Mummers tradition can be sustainable for years to come – and offers a less freezing-your-butt-off alternative to making the trek downtown. This year’s mini event didn’t include any of the comics, wenches, or fancies that strut at the New Year’s event.
But for an average string band shelling out of pocket between $80-100K for New Years Day, it’s a small price to pay for some hard to find Manayunk parking. The Mummers have taken quite a blow in recent years as the city of Philadelphia has cut prize money and asked for the parade to pay for more expenses.
Proceeds from Manayunk Mardi Gras go to the Philadelphia String Band Association and the bands that participate in the parade. However, you can still visit www.IAmAMummer.org to purchase pins and winter hats, with all proceeds going to the String Band Association.
The Manayunk Development Corporation said it will always be a fun, family-oriented event with “no outdoor alcohol”… however, revelry is always welcome at numerous bars and restaurants after the parade, which were packed this year of course with Yunkers and South Philadelphians. This is Manayunk (which translates to “Where We Go to Drink”) after all.
To learn more about the history of The Mummers and see vintage costumes and more, visit the Mummer Museum.