Growing up on the outskirts of Philadelphia as I did, you learn early on that The Mummers are the most Philadelphian of traditions.  What are Mummers?  If you don’t know, close your eyes, and picture Mardi Gras, Masquerade, Italian Carnavale, Three Stooges sketch comedy, clown troupes. all set to frantic, ragtime-y music played by what are called “string bands”.  Mummer’s Clubs, clad in outrageously colored, elaborately bejeweled and feathered costumes parade down Philadelphia’s confetti filled streets every January 1st.  Local television covers the hours long event.  The parade itself is 120 years old, however, the Mummer’s traditions are hundreds of years older, brought here from Northern Europe primarily as comic entertainment among the poor in the earliest Colonies.  It is speculated that George Washington even received Mummers as they gathered at his presidential home in the city.  And likely they marched and played passing by the new Liberty Bell in the City of Brotherly Love, then the nation’s capital.  A Mummer’s Purpose: to make people smile, laugh, and maybe even dance (often called “strutting”), right there on the streets.  And, they certainly know how.  

So, what could be wrong with this colorful, raucous racket?  Kim, my niece, who lives today in the heart of Mummer territory, not far from my childhood home, reminded me of their racist past.  As late as 1963, Mummers were finally banned from appearing in blackface.  In 1975, the New York Times called it “essentially a white man’s event”.  Yet, performers in the parade in recent years have worn and parodied blackface, redface, brownface and yellow face (and were blasted for doing so).  That sadly seems very 2020, doesn’t it?  Quite ironic that their unofficial beloved theme song, “Golden Slippers” was composed by an African American man, in a city that is 45% African American.  What tradition is being celebrated here?  Slowly, there are positive signs of change happening within Mummer’s culture.  Diverse immigrant groups are slowly joining in the parade.  A Cambodian-American group has participated, as well as a Mexican Heritage group San Mateo Carnavalero.  This is real movement!  

My parish priest, Father Slowiak, often challenges us to check the things we do that may not be, as he would say, “life giving”.  And the Scriptures warn about this!  As Mardi Gras and Lent approach, I’ll think of The Mummers and ask:

  • What traditions/behaviors/attitudes do I have that need to go?  
  • Do I hide these things under a costume of sorts?  
  • Do I see change as threatening to my tradition or even my identity? Why?
  • What can I do to begin ringing a new Bell of Liberty for those who have been cruelly unaccepted and mocked?  

Because only then can the true parade of justice really start, in the City of God.   

God Bless You this Lent and Always. I share a sketch I did on this theme.

– Bruce LaCrosse