Thursday, January 01, 2009

The Mummers Parade: A Philadelphia Institution

What symbolizes Philadelphia? I think of Bruce Springsteen's heart-wrenching song for the Tom Hanks movie about AIDS, cheesesteaks and soft pretzels, Sylvester Stallone in Rocky, Hall & Oates. But there's one other thing that is uniquely evocative of Philadelphia: the Mummers Parade, which is sponsored by Southwest Airlines.

Every New Year's Day for nearly 110 years, hundreds of dedicated performers--mostly men wearing sequined suits and feathered headdresses--strut up Broad Street to City Hall. As a kid, I often took for granted that the parade would happen and that it would be televised. It's like the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York, Mardi Gras in New Orleans, or the Rose Parade in Pasadena. It takes the whole day, beginning with comics (clowns) pulling babies in wagons to "fancy brigades" or mini plays, performing in the dark. But, for many people, the crowning jewel in the Mummer's parade is the string band--or rather, the dozens of banjo- and sax-playing musicians who make music and dance to choreographed routines . . . in the cold . . . with 50 pounds (or more) of additional gear.

Some years the parade was postponed due to bad weather; other years the parade went on, indoors. For at least one year the Travel Channel televised the parade to a national audience.
The official Mummers Parade site traces the festivities to Greeks, Romans, and Celts, but it is a Pennsylvania German (Pennsylvania Dutch) tradition, derived as it was from German farmers, drunk from the holidays and given to mischievousness, bad singing, and pot banging during a less-busy time of year. From those colonial beginnings arose the Mummers Parade, which is now endangered because City Hall announced it had to cut award monies for the parade. If in its pursestring tightening City Hall also cuts city services (security, cleanup, etc.), the parade that is Philadelphia could become extinct.

If you're in eastern Pennsylvania, support this year's sponsors, who contributed $300,000 to make sure Broad Street still got strutted in 2009: Verizon, Joey Vento (owner of Geno's Steaks), The Electric Factory, Forman Mills, and the Delaware Valley Regional Economic Development Fund. Support Southwest Airlines; WPHL, the local broadcaster; and WGN America, which will televise 2 hours of the parade nationally on January 3.
To send donations, see Save the Mummers.

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