Some Mummers strut despite Philadelphia parade cancellation

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — 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 Friday down 2nd 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.

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 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 recently that two previous attempts in the 119-year history of the parade to call it off — in 1919 due to World War I 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 persistent criticism over its long history of racist blackface displays and other inappropriate or offensive behavior by some participants. After last year’s parade, Kenney threatened to end it if parade organizers didn’t clean up their act.

Although online advocates of a celebration 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 J.P. 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 southern New Jersey but comes back to the city to celebrate with his 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 their headquarters, is home to a traditional welcome-home celebration after the Broad Street event that lasts late into the night, and Kristen Boone 36, said that was more the feeling of Friday’s event.

“It’s more like a neighborhood thing when it comes down 2nd 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 immigrant traditions, some dating back of 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 the 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 an official city-sponsored event in 1901.

The traditional spectacle now includes competition in four divisions: comics, the satirists; Fancies, with the flashiest outfits; Fancy Brigades, with choreographed theatrical works; and String Bands, the dancing musicians, with their traditional theme “Oh! Dem Golden Slippers.” After the parade, the spectacle moves indoors for a show in the Pennsylvania Convention Center — and even then, it’s not over. After the formal program, mummers and their fans traditionally congregate in South Philadelphia for a celebration that lasts late in the night.