History of the Mummers
Mummers’ celebrations in America date back to colonial times, when the boisterous Swedish custom of celebrating the end of the calendar year with noise making and shouting was combined with the tradition of the British mummery play. Reciting doggerel and receiving in return cakes and ale, groups of five to 20 people, their faces blackened, would march from home to home, shouting and discharging firearms into the air while burlesquing the English mummers’ play of St. George and the Dragon. Philadelphia, which had a sizable Swedish population, was the center of America’s mummers’ celebrations.
In 1790, Philadelphia became the capital of the United States, and President George Washington initiated a tradition of receiving “calls” from mummers at his mansion. In the early 19th century, the celebrations became so popular in Philadelphia that a city act was passed declaring that “masquerades, masquerade balls, and masked processions” were prohibited with threats of fine and imprisonment. While the celebrations were quieted, they did not cease, and when the law was abolished in the 1850s, there had been no reported convictions.
In celebration of the American centennial in 1876, what had been an uncoordinated group of neighborhood celebrations turned into an area-wide parade featuring various mummers’ clubs. In 1901, Philadelphia’s city government decided to sponsor the popular parade, and 42 fraternal organizations received permits to stage a parade in which prizes were awarded for costumes, music, and comic antics.
The Mummers’ Parade continues to be a popular Philadelphia tradition.