Scores of costumed performers took to the streets of their south Philadelphia stomping grounds for a New Year’s celebration of Mummers tradition, far from the customary parade route and despite official cancellation of the annual event and a ban on large gatherings due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Participants in brightly colored costumes, some with faces painted, paraded on Friday down Second Street in South Philadelphia following trucks that blared string band or popular music. Some wore masks but many did not, and others marched with them wearing “South Philly Still Struts” sweatshirts. WPVI-TV reported that other groups of Mummers marched through other sections of south Philadelphia.
The mayor, Jim Kenney, announced in July that the city would not grant permits to planned outdoor events with more than 50 people, effectively canceling the large annual parade and other events as officials struggled to keep a lid on the spread of the virus. Some Mummers leaders and organizations also asked members to stay home.
City spokeswoman Lauren Cox said there were no major issues on Friday but said seeing pictures of many participants without masks was “very concerning given the seriousness of this current wave of the pandemic”.
“Anyone who has been in or near large crowds today should get tested five to seven days after the activity, stay away from others for 10 days, and continue monitoring for symptoms for 14 days,” she said.
The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that two previous attempts in the 119-year history of the parade to call it off – in 1919 due to the first world war and in 1934 due to the Great Depression – hadn’t gone well. In both cases, Mummers still took to the streets to celebrate.
The usual celebration viewed by thousands each year features string bands, comic brigades, elaborate floats and plenty of feathers and sequins, but it has also attracted criticism over its long history of racist blackface displays and other inappropriate or offensive behavior. After last year’s parade, Kenney threatened to end it if organizers didn’t clean up their act.
Although online advocates of a celebration on Friday termed it a protest of Kenney’s decision and signs critical of the mayor could be seen, some said they were simply taking part in a very local celebration. That was the view expressed by JP Pasterino, 39, chatting with relatives as marchers from several groups filed past on 2nd Street.
“This is our neighborhood, this is a celebration, it’s more for us than it is the people, so we’re still going to show up, we’re going to social distance as we can, and do what we do,” said Pasterino, who lives in New Jersey but comes back to the city to celebrate with cousins.
“It’s a family day, it’s not just a party,” he said. “We all came down, we go to each other’s houses and we celebrate. You can’t live in fear.”
“Two Street”, where many clubs have headquarters, is home to a traditional welcome-home celebration after the Broad Street event that lasts late into the night. Kristen Boone 36, said that was more the feeling of Friday’s event.
“It’s more like a neighborhood thing when it comes down Second Street,” said Boone, sitting on a stoop watching the marchers as string band music echoed from a nearby truck. Acknowledging that the traditional post-parade celebration packing the street wouldn’t be a good idea this year, she was pleased to see the local tradition continue.
“It used to be, like, from doorstep to doorstep, so to see it is so cool,” she said.
The Mummers parade, believed to be the nation’s oldest folk festival, stems from a mixture of migrant traditions, some dating to the 1640s, dubbed “mummer” probably from the German word for “mask”.
It mixes the immigrant traditions of the Scandinavians who welcomed the new year with gunfire, the English and Welsh who entertained with masquerade plays and Germans credited with introducing Santa Claus to their new surroundings.
Black residents arriving after the civil war added the signature strut along with Oh! Dem Golden Slippers, the parade’s theme song. The parade became a city-sponsored event in 1901.
The spectacle now includes competition in four divisions: comics, fancies, fancy brigades and string bands. After the parade, the spectacle moves indoors for a show in the Pennsylvania Convention Center, before mummers and fans traditionally congregate in South Philadelphia for a celebration that lasts late in the night.