Sunday, January 01, 2006

Thud. (The sound of another sacred cow falling.)

What do you call a middle-aged guy who dresses in sequins, feathers and glitter; applies copious amounts of makeup to his face; and shakes his ass up and down the middle of the main street of town?

A transvestite prostitute?

Maybe. But if you live in Philadelphia, and it's New Year's Day, you might call him a Mummer.



For those of my readers who've never heard of the Mummers, you can check out the official website here, or to quote a National Geographic article:

They’re called Mummers (probably after the German word for disguise)—thousands of mostly white blue-collar guys who nearly every January 1 since 1901 have paraded through the city in wild array from head to spray-painted toe.

The origins of the Mummers are rooted in history but nobody really agrees how far back dates the New Year's Day tradition of getting dressed up in wild costumes and playing in bands while marching down the main drag (and I do mean drag) of Philadelphia. Swedish New Year's celebrations? English re-enactments of St. George and the Dragon? Medieval Christian mystery plays? Who knows? Who cares?

My dirty little secret: I just don't get Mummers.

Now I love Philadelphia. I have more affection and loyalty to this, my adopted city, than I ever felt for the town in which I grew up. Tastykakes, soft pretzels and cheesesteaks? Love 'em. Independence Hall still gives me chills. Boathouse Row, the cobbled streets of Chestnut Hill, people-watching at Rittenhouse Square, history and culture and architecture and so much more. I'm diligently working on my Philly accent (the hallmark of which is the long "o" pronounced like this: round your lips the normal way but say "ew". "Coo-ew--ke." "Ho-ew-agie.") I know that it's Pash-a-yunk, not "Pass-ee-yunk" and I was even willing to watch the moderately bad TV show "Hack" in order to enjoy the backshots of our faire city. But Mummery?

No, thanks.

Mummers face a nearly insurmountable hurdle by the fact that they strut their stuff on New Year's Day, in the morning. I don't have to spell it out for you, do I? Hangovers? Getting up at the crack of dawn? Standing on a street corner in the middle of winter for hours, with no bathroom in sight and some other hungover sap breathing vile fermented beer breath down your back while sitting in the lawn chair he put there to save his place ten hours ago? That's enough to ruin it for me right there.

Mummery gets a second, nearly fatal blow from the disturbing associations it presents. "Mummer" sounds suspiciously like Mummenschanz. If Mummenschanz doesn't creep you out, then you're reading the wrong blog, my friend. Moreover, a mummer is, when you look at it, really just a sparklier, glorified clown. Was it Jay Leno who called clowns "anthrax-ridden entertainment from the fifteenth century?" I would not go so far as to say clowns scare me, but I don't really like them. They don't make me feel happy or jolly: instead I find them vaguely disturbing and irritating, and have an uncontrollable urge to shove that poodle made of tied weiner balloons up their polka-dotted asses.

It may also have to do with my musical tastes. I'm not a big ukelele kind of gal. And hearing a tinny version of "Oh Dem Golden Slippers" on a banjo isn't my idea of musical paradise.

Probably most of it, however are certain cultural assumptions that I make. I can't help feeling that much of this mummery business is just an excuse for Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble to get out of the house and away from their (nagging, castrating harridans they call) wives and (whining, demanding) kids for a couple of hours every day. A way for the good ole boys to play in their treehouse -- no girls allowed, just like Spanky and Alfalfa. A place where manly men can drink beer and enjoy fart jokes and talk about how little sex their wives want to have with them, while scratching their pot bellies through their Eagles--I mean, Iggles-- T-shirts.

And some of it is the inescapable irony that these same guys who would no doubt beat the crap out of a man at a bar for seeming overly effeminate, or who firmly believe "homos" shouldn't be allowed to march in the St. Patrick's Day Parade, spend so much time, money and attention acting like the biggest bunch of drag queens on January 1st each year. (Although I suspect most self-respecting drag queens wouldn't be caught dead in those Bozo-meets-Uncle-Sam outfits.)

Philadelphia, I'll keep.

But you can have the Mummers.

No give-backs.

11 comments:

Kathy Merrick said...

My German grandpa was a Mummer. He played the banjo in Ferko.
I love the banjo (ooh, cute Bela Fleck), but I must agree with Caro.
Mummers creep me out.
In Saint John's, Newfoundland, people go mummering at Christmas.
Men dress as women, women dress as men.
I think they just go from door to door cadging drinks, but maybe they "perform" as well.
Hope yis're having a good new year, maybe yis're doewnnashore?

Sigh. I miss Phillelphia.

Marcia said...

Is it a bad thing if I don't know what's a Mummenschantz?

And, for the record, Barney and Fred did not have much responsibility for child care and other household duties. In fact, I seem to recall Bam-Bam kicking some Barney Ass.

Just sayin.

Debby said...

I grew up in the Philadelphia area but moved away 25 years ago [still say dawg and wooder]. I never liked the mummer's parade either. But be careful what you say! I almost got attacked by someone whose uncle was in Ferko.

It seemed odd to me that people who lived in (at the time) $15,000 rowhouses would spend a couple of thou every year on new costumes.

Carol said...

Oh Marcia, not a child of the 70s, are we?

http://www.mummenschanz.com

Warning: do not take a large sip of your mocha-latte-java-half-decaf until after the page has loaded.

Re: boys & their clubhouses: I think that you & I are really getting at the same thing. Fred & Barney were too busy running for Grand Poobah to worry about changing Pebbles' diaper; maybe if they stayed home once in a while, they would've.

doloreshaze said...

See now, when I was living in Yardley I caught the Mummer's parade on the telly and thought it mighty cool. Kind of dug that it had its own aesthetic (which seems to feature pigtailed wigs and baby doll dresses for some reason) and loved that it was these fat old fireman getting pretty for the day. But that's me, always was a sucker for bad drag.

Marcia said...

The mummenschantz clips made my heart beat faster. I'm not sure if that's a good thing or not, but I kind of liked it.

I was more a teen and young adult in the 70's. Were those mummen thangs popular back then?

I do recall Fred doing one activity at home, running past the same plant, wall-hanging and lamp, over and over. Must've been an OCD thing.

Susan said...

I love mummenschantz. I think they're fun to watch, but I've never seen an entire show. Don't know the mummers though; Clowns don't really make me smile or laugh either. Someone mentioned Bela Fleck. He is cute and talented. Saw him on Sesame Street! Ya gotta be good to make it on SS! Happy Gnu Year!

Stephanie said...

I can scarcely believe that Philadelphia Mummers and Newfoundland Mummers share the same name. The last thing I'd be associating with mummers was a whole whack of sparkles, but who knew?

http://www.newfoundlandlabrador.com/history/mummering.asp
Either way, they both creep me out, but at least Newfie's don't have to get up in the morning.

Shelley said...

I thought mummers was just a Newfoundland phenomenon. Our local theatre company actually did a play based on Newfie mummers a couple of Christmases ago.

Natalie said...

FWIW, some of the Philly clubs do allow women in now (and at least two of them are captained by women) and some of the string bands perform in the Pride parade, so things are changing, albeit slowly.

I'm scared by the comics, and mildly entertained by the fancies, but I think I love with the string bands a little bit; they're like marching bands on steroids and with fewer instruments.

Janie said...

I won't say that I personally enjoy the Mummer schtick, but I do find it fascinating as a fairly un-commercialized, modern folk art. I didn't get to watch any of the parade this year, so maybe my observation from previous years won't hold true, but I think it's a way to see what people are thinking about in the themes of the various companies. Were there any depictions of Iraq, terrorists, or our President?