Mum’s the Word
If it’s October, it’s time for me to prepare to be a mummer. Actually, I’ve been paying towards being a mummer since June. Rehearsals start in November. Final payment on my costume (we call them “suits”) is due at that time.
I live near Philadelphia, and one of Philly’s grand traditions is its New Years Day Mummers’ Parade. In this lengthy, lively, and colorful affair, “mummers” of many stripes entertain the hung-over citizenry of the City of Brotherly Love.
There are several divisions of mummers, depending upon talent, tenacity, and sobriety. At the top of the heap in all three categories stand the string bands, whose elaborate routines and off-the-charts costumes leave you wondering: How can these people be amateurs? At the other end of the spectrum, especially in regards to sobriety, are the comic clubs. They are clearly peopled by amateurs on limited budgets who just want to have a semi-organized good ol’ time.
I’m in a comic club. It’s officially called a New Year’s Brigade. We march between 150 and 175 members every year. In 2012 we got first place for our routine “Wenchtoberfest.” Oh yeah, I forgot to mention. In comic brigades, everyone wears dresses. With ruffles. And bloomers. There’s nothing quite so funny as a fat man twerking in a German barmaid costume and a blonde wig.
It turns out that “mumming” is an ancient tradition. (That shouldn’t be surprising. Everything that’s fun is basically an ancient tradition.) In the British Isles, mummers greet the New Year by wearing costumes and prowling from house to house, or having parades. There are two operative words here: “mum,” and “costume.”
Almost every place that holds a mummers’ parade will say that the event got started because civic leaders wanted to put a curb on holiday drinking. But why the parade? Why the costumes? This is where the whole ancient tradition thing comes in. There’s nothing new under the sun. Greeting a new year by wearing strange clothing and acting out without speaking goes way, way back into the mists of time. The only thing that’s gotten funky is the date.
The Philly Mummers’ Parade is held on January 1. This coincides with mummer traditions in the United Kingdom, particularly Scotland. But my home town, Hagerstown, Maryland, also had a Mummers’ Parade. It was held on Halloween.
Hagerstown’s story is the same as Philly’s: The town fathers, seeking to curb misbehavior, initiated a lavish costume parade on Halloween. If this seems extremely natural, well … it is. Halloween was the Celtic New Year. It doesn’t take a leap of faith to feel that the ancient Celts must have brought in their New Year with costumes and hijinks and people acting out under the anonymity of speechlessness.
When I march with my mummer brigade, I feel like I’m immersed in the Old Ways. The New Year is upon us. Let’s get suited up in the strangest way possible and act out in a somewhat organized manner. Call it trick-or-treating if you like, but don’t buy the line that this is something new and modern. It is ancient and holy, and a whole lot of fun.
Happy New Year!