Dozens of sparkling musicians strut down the middle of Main Street in Manayunk. A little girl in pigtails and upside-down floral sunglasses is swept up in the massive arms of the string band’s conductor and they begin to sway to the tune of Oh When the Saints Come Marching In. Gleefully dancing and clapping, the bustling crowd stares in awe at the vibrant performers in all their regalia.
“There’s simply nothing like it,” says Meghan Volk, who is from Pottstown, Pa. and has been coming to the Mummer’s New Years celebration with her family for years. However, this is her first experience of Mummers marching in Manayunk, Pa.
Volk claims she could hear the bands performing from the jam packed streets blocks away as soon as she parked her car. Last Saturday’s Mummers Mardi Gras gathering was almost intimate compared to the traditional 115-year-old New Years Day Mummers tradition. Sixteen string bands strut their stuff from Shurs Lane to Green Lane on this festive day with record breaking temperatures in Manayunk. The traditional Wenches and Fancy Brigades, who are often known as the comics, sat this one out and the String Bands took center stage.
The Mummers parade is one of the oldest folk festivals in the United States and traces its roots to the mid-17th-century blending elements from European and African heritages to create the local phenomena. The blue collar folks from South Philadelphia prepare year round for the legendary New Years extravaganza. This grand parade has led to a new ritual supporting the Mummers organizations was created in 2015 to blend the established Philadelphia Mummers history with New Orleans pageantry to create a distinctive family event that is rooted in tradition.
Throughout the parade’s tradition, the costumes have become increasingly elaborate. Costumes used to be cotton-based, but have evolved to become fancier and fancier and are now often made from satin and have metallic touches. Feathers from roosters and ostriches are also extremely popular, especially in the elaborate headdresses worn by everyone from the conductor to the saxophonist. The different clubs within the divisions all stick to a theme and dress alike. These ornate costumes are just as lavishly priced, at up to $10,000 each, they cost the clubs quite a pretty penny.
To fund this the “Mummers Bucket Brigade” collects money from those lining the street, with proceeds going directly to the Mummers String Band Association, while Kermit the Frog and the string band’s conductor linked arm-in-arm perform a jig. Meanwhile, the smell of sweet southern barbeque wafts through the air at the Main Street bar, Mad River, where Volk observed the parade with delight. The average bar was transformed from its usual drunken college crowd to a family friendly venue brimming with food trucks, face painting and specialty beers. A Jamaican vibe is cast over the parking lot adjacent to Mad River as a local musician beats to the beat of his own homemade drum set with his two drumsticks in hand. He is lost in the music.
The visually stunning mummers never fail to impress. Volk’s favorite is Quaker City, whose icy ensembles have elaborate sequins, Viking headdresses, and endless shades of blue. Generations meld together as the Mummers get up-close and personal with the mob of spectators all the way down Main Street.
Farther down the street the crowd evolves from families to young revelers, with a celebration exploding onto Main Street. There is outdoor dining and drinking in front of the Bayou Bar and Grille and Winnie's restaurant. People from all walks of life swarm the sidewalks, some with their four legged friends in tow.
The Bayou’s outdoor drinking arena has patrons packed like sardines outside, so everyone can feast their eyes on their favorite Mummers. Manayunk resident, Carolyn Pinto, says the hoppy air bursts with, “a positively exciting spirit” she has never seen before on Main Street.
Down here at the tail end of the parade, the Mummers, who have completed their promenade, set up shop at local bars and eateries in their predetermined “clubs,” where they are enjoying the picturesque February day, performing outside of the bars. The crowd merrily cheers them on as they play their all-time favorites.
Pinto says that, “this event illustrates how Philadelphian’s adore their Mummers and that they are committed as a community and as a city to keep the amazing tradition going.” This unique Philly Mardi Gras moment is bound to become a tradition that will continue for decades to come.
Volk makes her way down Main street to the Goat’s Beard as the parade comes to a close. She snags the last table outside and enjoys an ice cold Amstel with friends, watching the Mummers pull away in bright yellow school busses.