Thursday, December 30, 2004
[Warning: the following post is not funny. It is an attempt to describe something very important to me, the Mummers Parade on New Year's Day in my hometown of Philadelphia. As it turns out, it is very hard to explain, and I'm not very good at writing stuff that doesn't involve really tasteless humor. So read on at your risk. Don't say I didn't warn you.]
Three things, right away:
1) There is a tradition in Philly called The Mummers Parade held every year on New Year's Day.
2) It is very hard to explain what this is.
3) It is also very hard to explain how much I fucking love it.
Let's deconstruct this, shall we?
First, the parade itself. The Mummers Parade, if I were to describe it in one sentence, is like Philly's version of Mardi Gras, held on New Year's Day. It closes down the city of Philadelphia, involves thousands of participants organized into clubs marching down the city's main street as thousands of spectators watch, and, most importantly, drink.
The parade is officially 104 years old, but some say the tradition of mummery dates back to Constitutional times. According to the award-winning documentary made about the parade, "Strut" (required viewing for all of my friends), mummery started as a way for people to get together and have some fun in otherwise difficult times. So what did they do? They got drunk and danced on January 1.
The parade has since evolved from groups of guys getting together and get messed up to what it is today: a city-wide spectacle that is famous for its music, brilliant costumes, and transcendent boozing.
[Editor's Note: Though women are allowed to be in the parade, most choose not to partake. Trying to sound as un-sexist as possible (though I am very sexist in real life and every time I see a woman driving, operating heavy machinery, or on a sports telecast, I want to light something on fire), the parade involves waking up before dawn, getting drunk before noon, and being out in the cold for sixteen or so hours. Oh, and also you're surrounded by thousands of drunk guys dressed like this.]
A word now about the "clubs" that make up the groups that march in the parade. In my neighborhood, the New Year's clubs are the center of social life. There are no Elk's or Mason's or any of that crap, so to have a good time people go up their club and join other members in having some drinks, shooting some darts, etc. Then, on New Year's Day, all the people in the club get together in a common costume/theme and march in the parade.
Which club you're in often depends on which club your father was in. See, at heart, the parade really is a family event. My dad took me out in the parade starting at age 3. And I loved it. As I got older, I hooked up with friends from school whose dads took them out, and we had a blast. We knew that people drank, but we didn't realize how much better made the experience. And of course I didn't realize that what my dad was smoking was not a cigarette until around age 9.
The club I am in is Froggy Carr. This club was created by a bunch of guys who lost a friend, James "Froggy" Carr, in the early '70's in a freak football accident. It started with a few dozen original members, and now 700 people go out with this club on New Year's Day. However, there are still only a few dozen original members, and it's very hard to become a member and enjoy the accoutrements that come with being a member (i.e. lots of booze, coolness, etc). My hope is that someday when I am famous I can become a member. That is, if I live long enough. I'm pretty sure I had a mild heart attack in the shower today, so it ain't looking good.
Why do clubs "march" and what does "marching" involve? Well, there is an element of competition, as clubs compete against each other for 1st place. However, the competition is much more about neighborhood bragging rights than the money that comes with placing high (1st place might get a club $3000, whereas they might have spent $70,000 on costumes).
"Marching" can be different things depending upon what kind of club you are in. Clubs are divided into four divisions:
1) The Comics. These are the first to march in the parade, crews of motley drunks who don't have to do any preparation. They wake up early, put on a suit, and starting getting fucked up. Not too surprisingly, this is what I'm in (Froggy Carr is a Comics club, but there are 40 or so other Comics clubs as well). The Comics either hire small drum/brass bands to provide music, or play recorded drum/brass music.
2) The Fancies. More elaborately dressed and prepared than the Comics, they march in the parade in the mid-afternoon. I know next to nothing about these, because by this time of day I couldn't tell you if I am white or black because I'm so drunk. These guys have some floats as well, so preparation is necessary.
3) The String Bands. Dressed in fancy back pieces, these clubs perform music and showcase choreography. The String Bands, along with the Fancy Brigades, are what the fans come to see. 20-50 people, all dressed in elaborate costumes, playing their saxophones and other horns and banjoes and basses can be pretty f'in' cool. They prepare, practice, and build all year-round for New Year's Day.
4) The Fancy Brigades. The Fancy Brigades provide the biggest spectacle. Intricate choreography backed by recorded music in front of giant floats that often have moving parts and exploding shit and all sorts of bells and whistles. These march last, and in my opinion are the coolest part of the parade. Like the String Bands, they too prepare, practice, and build all year-round for New Year's Day.
That is a pretty good break-down of the Mummers parade, in 1000 words or less.
Now, I fucking love this day. I can't describe how much I love this fucking day. On the surface, it doesn't make sense: I have to wake up at the crack of dawn, stand outside in frigid temperatures for hours, and walk for miles and miles in the course of the day.
But the party atmosphere makes it all worthwhile (also, I without exaggeration probably drink 60 beers in the course of the day, so that makes everything better too). The official parade routes goes down Broad Street, the main street in Philly, and runs from 10am until 8pm or so. Then, starting at around 3pm, after doing Broad Street, all the clubs begin their march down 2nd Street, which is the name for my neighborhood in Philly. Without getting too into details, at 4pm when I step out my door on New Year's Day, there are 50,000 people on my street partying their asses off, drinking their faces off, and having a blast. And this goes until the wee hours of the morning. Fucking awesome.
So that's why I look forward to New Year's all year long. It's without exception the drunkest I get all year, and that's really saying something. Food, booze, music, dancing, 100,000 people - for about 16 hours. If you ever have the chance, I highly recommend you check it out. Great fucking times.
[For further reading, please see the official Mummers website: www.mummers.com]