Philadelphia’s Mummers Parade – winner of Best Holiday Parade by USA Today’s 10Best Readers’ Choice for 2021 – is one of the city’s most unique annual traditions and the oldest continuous folk parade in the United States.
Each New Year’s Day, thousands of Philadelphia residents decked out in colorful costumes strut down Broad Street to welcome the new year. More than 40 clubs of Mummers participate in the Parade, which is separated into five divisions: the Comic Division, the Fancy Brigades, the Fancy Division, the String Bands, and the Wench Brigades. Some clubs play music, some perform skits, others seek to wow the crowd with their elaborate outfits and dance routines. Every year, more than 10,000 marchers of all ages work year-round creating costumes and props, practicing skits and rehearsing performances to participate in the annual parade to the delight of thousands of viewers.
What is a Mummer?
The term “mummer” goes back to medieval times and refers to wearing costumes and pulling pranks. European settlers brought the concept of dressing up and performing pantomimes at Christmas time to Philadelphia in the 1600s. The first organized group of Mummers was New Year’s Shooters and Mummers Association, so-called because armed members of the association would sing carols door-to-door, seeking food and drink, while also firing into the air to “shoot in” the New Year.
The Swedish immigrants in the late 17th century are credited with bringing the tradition to Philadelphia and it quickly spread. Mummery was a part of life in Philadelphia for hundreds of years before the first formal, city-sponsored Mummers Parade took place in 1901. The Mummers Parade has evolved over time and has welcomed under-represented communities of the city. In recent years, multiple Latino marching groups, an African American drill team and an LGBTQ+ drag-queen troop have joined the parade line-up.
The Mummers Parade kicks off at 9:00 a.m. at Philadelphia City Hall. The Mummers then make their way south on Broad Street to Washington Avenue, stopping to perform along the way. Performance areas are set up along South Broad Street, also known as the Avenue of the Arts. Once the Fancy Brigades finish the route, they head into the Pennsylvania Convention Center to perform twice for ticket holders. Their first show, the Fancy Brigade Family Show, begins at 11:30 a.m. The groups perform again at 5:00 p.m. for the Mummers Fancy Brigade Finale. Tickets for both shows are available for purchase online and at the Independence Visitor Center at 6th and Market Streets.
TIP: After completing the parade route, many Mummers return to a stretch of 2nd Street in South Philadelphia, from Washington Avenue and Snyder Avenue, referred to locally as “Two Street.” Here, the revelry continues into the evening as Mummers strut, perform and celebrate outside of their clubhouses and among family, friends and local residents.
Where to Watch
It’s free to attend the Philadelphia Mummers Parade. Families and fans of all ages line the streets along the parade route to marvel at the colorful costumes as the Mummers march by. Ticketed bleacher seating is available at the Parade Grandstand. You can purchase those tickets at Independence Visitor Center.
TIP: If you’re unable to join the fun in-person, watch online via a livestream on PHL17’s Facebook page.
Pennsylvania Convention Center Performances
If standing out in the cold during the parade isn’t your thing, consider purchasing tickets to watch the Mummers work their magic indoors. The Fancy Brigades hold two ticketed competitions inside of the Pennsylvania Convention Center. You can purchase tickets to either of those shows at Independence Visitor Center.
The Comic Division
The Comics are the heart and soul of the Philadelphia Mummers Parade. The Comic Division is the original division, which traces their roots back to the ancient world, the Middle Ages and early America. The Comics compete in a variety of categories and are judged for their costuming and presentations. It’s all about satire mockery and light-hearted fun for this group.
The Fancy Brigades
These are the real showstoppers, who produce theater-like spectacles. The Fancy Brigades perform four-and-a-half-minute mini-Broadway-style productions with massive props, scenery and choreography inside of the Pennsylvania Convention Center at two different showtimes. As soon as the Fancy Brigades finish their first performance, they join their fellow Mummers on Broad Street before going back to perform a second time for the judges.
The Fancy Division
These Mummers are all about the “wow factor.” Their goal is to bring dazzling displays of color, form and texture to life through costumes and floats. The Fancy Division is judged on their costume and presentation.
The String Band Division
Music is what matters most to the String Band Division, but that’s not all they do. These Mummers play their own music and incorporate Broadway-style choreography along with props to perform a four-and-a-half-minute production in front of the crowd and judges at City Hall. Professional musicians are not permitted to compete in the competition, but based on the sound, you’d never know these talented performers are just amateurs!
The Wench Brigade Division
The latest addition to the Mummers Parade, the Wench Brigade Division is noted for having live bands and being traditional Mummers. The Wench Brigades pride themselves on continuing many Mummer traditions, such as wearing the dress-and-bloomers suits, painted faces, decorated umbrellas, and live brass bands.
For More Mummers Fun…
Check out the Mummers Museum, officially known as the New Year’s Shooters and Mummers Museum, on 1100 S. 2nd Street. Visitors can learn about the Mummers’ unique customs, including the right way to walk or “strut,” the importance of “dem golden slippers” and the colorful costumes worn by different marching clubs. The museum is also available to rent for private events such as celebrations and corporate functions.
The Mummers Museum says, “Mummers are about celebration, fun, and family. They value tradition and community. Mummers can be musical, satirical or even a little ridiculous, but they are always colorful.”