The Mummers Parade is held each New Year's Day in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, US. It is believed to be the oldest folk festival in the United States.
Mummers tradition dates back to 400 BC and the Roman Festival of Saturnalias where Latin laborers marched in masks throughout the day of satire and gift exchange. This included Celtic variations of “trick-or-treat” and Druidic noise-making to drive away demons for the new year. Reports of rowdy groups “parading” on New Years day in Philadelphia date back before the revolution. Prizes were offered by merchants in the late 1800’s. January 1, 1901 was the first “official” parade offered about $1,725 in prize money from the city.
The exact origins of the word “mummer” have become obscure, but they likely had to do with masks or the act of disguise. In England, mummers have dressed up and performed Christmastime plays, which often told the story of St. George and the Dragon and featured themes of winter and rebirth, for many centuries. In some places, mummers’ troupes would also go from house to house to raise funds for their celebrations.
Over time, mummering traditions diverged and developed from place to place within the British Isles and spread with British settlers, across the world. Philadelphia’s Mummers’ Day Parade is derived, in part, from Britain’s mummer plays, in combination with Christmastime rituals that other Europeans brought to the city. But as mummering has been passed down, it has morphed in each place into an idiosyncratic tradition.
One day each year, in St. John’s, Newfoundland, Canada, the streets are filled with misshapen, masked figures wrapped in quilts and oversized jackets, or bright boots and distinctive dresses, with undergarments worn on the outside. Their faces are obscured behind gruesome disguises, lacy veils, giant horse heads, or beneath ghost-like pillow cases. These mummers are the latest iteration of a centuries-old tradition that has its roots in Europe, but is entirely unique to this Canadian island. More than a thousand people come out to the Mummers Parade each year, to feel what it is like to shed their normal identity for at least a few hours.