I’ve been living in southeastern Pennsylvania for going on three years, and while I’ve acclimated to the particulars of the region, there are some things that never cease to amaze and confuse the hell out of me, especially when it combines packing a street in Philadelphia with enough feathers, sequins, and elaborate costumes with massive backpieces as possible. No, it’s not the annual Gay Pride Parade – I’m talking about that particularly bizarre, garish, and unintentionally entertaining idiosyncratic piece of Philadelphia culture: the New Year’s Day Mummer’s Parade.
Back on January 1, 2010 I experienced my first glimpse of the Mummer’s Parade on television and I was completely mystified. If you’ve never seen it – odds are you probably haven’t even heard of it unless you live or have relatives in the US Mid-Atlantic region – it’s absolutely mesmerizing. The only way to truly explain it is to compare it to things that are sort of like it but still aren’t; a Mummer’s Parade is combines the pageantry of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade with the colorful and elaborate costumes of Mardi Gras, the floats of a homecoming parade, and the kind of performances you’d expect from a marching band competition – if everyone was still liquored up from the night before.
From an anthropological standpoint, the Mummer’s Parade is fascinating because it’s been going strong in some form or another for literally hundreds of years. Easily the oldest folk festival in the United States, it predates the formation of the US by around a century, with reports going back to 17th century colonists – mostly Scandinavian, European, English, and Celtic – celebrating the New Year by getting rip-roaring drunk, dressing up in carnival costumes, roaming the streets of Philadelphia, shooting firearms in the air, and good-naturedly accosting local residents for food and drink by generally making asses of themselves by singing, dancing, and performing mummer’s plays to anyone who’d stop long enough to watch. Needless to say, the whole thing took off and grew to incredibly popular proportions to the point where the city of Philadelphia finally organized an official parade in 1901, just to contain the insanity, and the parade has gotten bigger (and more expensive) every year since.
The most impressive (and incomprehensible, at least to an outsider) part of the parade every year is the Fancy Brigade Finale Show, a competition between all the different clubs that have banded together to put on elaborate 4-minute long choreographed shows set to music and including props, floats, and costumes that would make Elton John sink to the ground and cry in envy. Each crew labors for months on costuming, props, and choreography for the honor of the top spot at the Philadelphia Convention Center. The best – or worst – part is that the choreography is often spastic and disjointed in most cases, leading to some mind-bending moments this year when one crew, whose theme had been superheroes, had dancers drunkenly milling about on stage in elaborate, neon-colored costumes; I watched one of the mummers. dressed as Mighty Thor, run headlong into one dressed as The Thing from the Fantastic Four, colliding at full speed and making both their costumes wriggle like a Jell-O mold in an earthquake, and suddenly I knew how Hunter S. Thompson felt when he was “conducting research” for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
Seriously, my description can’t even do it justice. Just check out this clip from this year’s competition. I couldn’t find the superhero performance, but this is the “Satin Slipper” Fancy Brigade club performing an absolute train-wreck of a show, set to dubstep, featuring an art style that I can only describe as Fat Aztec Cyberpunk combined with Gay Pride Parade Cylons, bad Halo 4 cosplay, and a color-blind Darth Vader – and it’s absolutely the most glorious thing I’ve ever seen.