The Mummers Are Secretly Planning a Parade, Even Though Philly Has Canceled It

"The parade has always been a political event," says one Mummer. "And if there can be parties in the streets for Joe Biden and big demonstrations for this and for that, then they can't stop the Mummers."

mummers strutting during a mummers parade in philadelphia

Mummers strutting during a previous Mummers Parade in Philadelphia. (Photo by Howard Pitkow)

If you think back to the beginning of COVID in Philadelphia, you may remember that it started with a battle between city officials and the organizers of the St. Patrick’s Day Parade. The city wanted the parade canceled in the interest of public safety. And after initially insisting the parade would go forward, the organizers begrudgingly caved. There was no St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Philadelphia. That was mid-March.

By July, the city was no longer asking.

On July 14th, Mayor Kenney officially declared a moratorium on all big public events through February 28, 2021. On his cancellation list was everything from the Broad Street Run and Made in America to the Thanksgiving Day Parade and the Mummers Parade. The Broad Street Run went virtual. Made in America set its sights on 2021. And Cecily Tynan and all those marching bands won’t be entertaining you outside the Art Museum while the turkey’s in the oven. But the Mummers? The Mummers are a different story altogether.

According to representatives of three prominent Mummers troupes, all of whom spoke with Philly Mag on the condition of anonymity for themselves and their members, plans are afoot for the Mummers to strut on New Year’s Day in Philadelphia despite this ban on major public events.

“You’ll definitely see Mummers marching on New Year’s Day,” says one high-ranking member of a string band.

“Make no mistake,” says another longtime Mummer. “There will be a Mummers Parade.”

What the 2021 Mummers Parade will look like is unclear. One Mummer said his group will most likely stick to the neighborhood where they’re based, while another said his group and others will take to Broad Street as they do every year, albeit without the TV cameras, judges and prize money. And the groups won’t be as large as normal or as lavishly costumed. So basically, a much less organized, more modest version of the Mummers Parade.

“New Year’s Day is on a Friday,” points out one Mummer. “You aren’t going to keep these guys inside on New Year’s Day. Not when there are two days to recover. It’s a three-day weekend.”

I asked one high ranking Mummer how the Mummers can justify having a parade amid COVID. His answer? Free speech.

“The parade has always been a political event,” he said, pointing out that many of the troupes include political commentary and satire in their routines. “And if there can be parties in the streets for Joe Biden and big demonstrations for this and for that, then they can’t stop the Mummers.”

Sam Regalbuto, the new president of the Philadelphia Mummers String Band Association, insists that none of the string bands will be performing in any official capacity, though he admits that some individual members or a small group from within a string band could decide to do its own thing. Regalbuto says the association could potentially come up with penalties for any members who do so.

“I would imagine you may see some of the smaller groups, like the wench brigades, violating the city’s guidelines,” he says. “They kind of do what they want. But then when bad things happen, we all get lumped together as just ‘the Mummers.'”

I reached out to Mayor Kenney’s office to find out what officials think about all this. And I was surprised to learn that officials aren’t exactly ready to quash a Mummers Parade on New Year’s Day. At least, not yet.

“While the City currently discourages large protests and parades, such as the Mummers, we will not stop them unless safety concerns are implicated,” spokesperson Mike Dunn explained via email. “The city is not currently issuing permits for special events or gatherings, but we are also not enforcing such permitting requirements. We are currently evaluating our permitting process and hope to announce changes by year’s end.”

So what “safety concerns” could make the city stop the Mummers Parade from moving forward? Having a bunch of Mummers blasting their saliva through trombones on Broad Street probably isn’t such a great idea, right?

“Without speaking to the particular hypothetical that you pose, I can tell you that public safety would include health concerns,” Dunn told me. “At the same time, and as previously stated in our September emergency order, it is the city’s policy to avoid unnecessary confrontations in the enforcement of its emergency orders. Confrontations can unnecessarily escalate, extend the duration of, and increase the size of an otherwise peaceful gathering. In the interest of city residents and employees, the city considers many factors, including the peaceful nature of the gathering, its compliance with other laws and regulations, and the response efforts that best serve public health, safety, and welfare, in evaluating appropriate enforcement measures.”

Of course, if the Mummers do go rogue, it would be a return to roots of sorts. In the 19th century, the parade consisted of groups of masked men who would fire their guns into the air and generally misbehave as a kind of middle finger to the upper class. The government tried repeatedly to shut them down but didn’t succeed, in the end taking the old “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” approach. The first “official” Mummers Parade took place in 1901. So it sounds like the 2021 Mummers Parade will be a bit like those before the turn of the 20th century — hopefully without the guns.