Don’t Dis My Mummers

I'll take the Philly tradition, warts and all

The “Lists” cover story in this month’s Philadelphia magazine offers a lot of juicy material to debate (save for John Street’s induction in the Hair Hall of Fame, which is indisputable). Of course, that’s why magazines make lists, from Rolling Stone’s Top 50 Guitarists to those Most Unfit Cities in America stories we always seem to end up in: to get people talking. I disagree with more than a few of the picks, and at the top of my list is the one about “10 Things We Need To Get Rid Of,” for one reason: They’re over the Mummers.

Anyone who’s checked out the magazine’s Facebook page has seen that this Mummers dis has upset, angered and enraged folks more than anything else in the issue. I’m with them (at least the rational ones who aren’t threatening any bodily harm). In the interest of full disclosure, I have no direct ties to the Mummers, have never marched in the parade, and don’t make a habit of wearing sequins and feathers—at least not in public. But my Mummers bond goes back as long as I remember, when my mom would invite my aunts and uncles over to our house on New Year’s Day. Aside from her killer baked ziti, the main attraction was always the parade. When the string bands began to strut, all eyes turned to the television. A few die-hards graded each act, and whoever picked the winner would earn bragging rights for the year. As an impatient teenager, watching the Mummers felt like a chore to me sometimes; in my early 20s, a couple of lousy hangovers made the experience more of an endurance test than a bonding moment. That changed as I grew older, though, and now it doesn’t quite feel like the calendar has turned unless I catch at least some of the festivities on Broad Street.

I should also point out that aside from a glass of merlot or a beer here and there, Mummers-watching is a pretty sober affair in my family; contrary to popular belief, getting bombed isn’t a prerequisite to enjoying the Mummers. (I also imagine that watching glittery man-peacocks playing banjos while on hallucinogenic drugs would be a nightmare.) Public drunkenness by some of the participants and their fans is one of the less desirable aspects of the tradition, as is the occasional prostitute party on Two Street. It’s also not exactly a model of diversity, to put it lightly.

Some have compared the Mummers to Mardi Gras in New Orleans, which is similarly woven deep into its city’s culture, and also has a few elements that aren’t exactly civil or family-friendly. Guys throwing plastic beads at women in hopes of some topless action isn’t what I’d call classy, but no one’s calling for an end to that tradition. In fact, the ongoing love for the Mummers is undeniable. When the Mummers were cash-strapped in 2009, the Bacon Brothers donated proceeds from a song to the cause, calling the parade “as much a part of Philadelphia’s rich history as the Liberty Bell, the Philadelphia Orchestra and John Coltrane.” If Kevin Bacon is on board, count me in.

Jokes about drunks and cross-dressers are easy to make, but if that’s all you see when you watch the parade, then you’re not really watching it at all. To me, the Mummers are a connective thread to my family, and to the city where my parents grew up and where I was born. Though I live a block from the parade route, I’d rather watch the string bands and hear those banjos from my parents’ living room a few miles away. I’m with Philadelphia magazine on getting rid of the Parking Authority, SEPTA tokens and the “everything sucks” attitude some people have around here. But with the Mummers, they got it wrong.