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The Ancient Custom of Mummery

This article appeared in The Mummers Magazine in the 1950's

Mummery is as ancient as man's dream of getting outside of his customary life; it is as old as man's imagination.

Tracing back through the mazes of history that led to England and Germany, to ancient France, pagan Rome and Greece, we find mummery has influenced customs and perpetuated many interesting traditions. Every notion had its festivals at one time or another, each marked by parades and displays of fanciful costumes. The pagan Saturnalia and carnival, for example an ancient Roman festival of Saturn, beginning December 17th, was marked by unrestrained merry-making.

As for back as 400 BC Roman laborers observed that feast of the Saturnalia in honor of their god, Saturn, and the reaping of the harvest. They made calls on friends, they exchanged gifts and it was customary for some of the gifts to bear greetings for a happy new year.

Slaves sported robes from their masters, and the patricians, wearing fantastic costumes, roamed the streets with their slaves. Age and rank were forgotten for the fiesta and all persons were free for the day. There was a musical background for the capers of the multitude with songs and ballads befitting the joyous occasion.

An early custom was the Florentine Carnival usually held in the beginning of Lent - a day set aside by the monks of the Middle Ages for the lords of misrule and the abbots of unreason.

At this time, England and Germany celebrated their Christmas Mosque, resulting in riotous indulgence. This took the form of a dramatic entertainment popular in 16th and 17th centuries, and followed usually an allegorical theme which embodied pageantry, music and dancing. Immigrants and travelers brought these customs, celebrations and festivities when they came to America. Continued throughout the centuries of American history, this traditional gala pageant of Philadelphia symbolizes the ushering in of the new year.

One of the earliest known accounts of a mummers' parade was written by Dr. Henry Muhlenberg, who established the Lutheran Church in America. He wrote in 1839: "Men met on the roads in Tinicum and Kingsessing, who were disguised as clowns, shouting at the top of their voices and shooting guns.

When the Swedes came to Tinicum, just outside of Philadelphia, they brought their custom of visiting friends on "Second Day Christmas," December 26, long before William Penn arrived in the good ship "Welcome".

Gradually they extended the period of their calls to the New Year, which was welcomed with marked revelry and joyous noises. Masqueraders paraded the streets of old Philadelphia and the other sections now a part of the city.

Many of the revelers were armed, they carried pistols for protection along with their bells and sundry noisemakers. And as expected, the pistols and even muskets were called upon to add their emphatic blasts of the din of "welcoming in the New Year". Those who "shot in" the New Year naturally become New Year's Shooters and thus they established an identification through the years. The early Swedish Mummers appointed a leader, or "speech director", who had a special little dance step and who recited a rhyme like this:

As we stood the year before;
Give us whiskey, give us gin,
Open the door and let us in.

Even during the Revolutionary period, New Year's Day continued to be a day of carnival and friendly calls. General Howe, whose redcoats occupied the city, staged the "Meschianza" in the Wharton mansion on New Year's Day, 1778, and the ill-starred Major Andre described it as a "gay and gorgeous spectacle".

George Washington, following his inauguration, began the official custom of New Year's Day calls and continued it during the seven years he occupied the presidential mansion in Philadelphia, then the capital. The mummers continued to celebrate annually in their traditional way. Reciting doggerel and receiving in return cakes and ale, groups of five to twenty, their faces blackened, would march from home to home, shooting and shouting, doing friendly impersonations of General Washington and burlesquing the fashionable English mummers' play of  St. George and the Dragon.

A character that always accompanied their "Washington" was Cooney Cracker, a clown whose costumes and antics make some historians believe he was the forerunner of the Uncle Sam of today. This shooter impersonating Washington had several poems and speeches to recite, which still survive.

The burlesquing of their fashionable mummers' play and the increasing number of the black-faced revelers, offended the "Social Leaders" of the day. It caused them in 1808 to force through the legislature an act, declaring that "masquerades, masquerade balls, and masked processions were public nuisances", and decreeing that oil persons who allowed masked balls in their homes, entertained shooters or participated in these or similar demonstrations, would be subject to a fine and imprisonment not to exceed three months.

Nevertheless, the farmers, tradesmen, craftsmen, apprentices, laborers and members of fire-fighting companies continued to stage clandestine masquerades on New Year's Eve and New Year's Day and there are no records of any convictions under this act. They continued their own ideas of celebrating New Year's and clung to their rifles and pistols and friendly calls in "welcoming in the year". Gradually they acquired the name "shooters' which is still used today.

With such a rich background it is no wonder that the traditional Philadelphia Mummers' New Year's Day Pageant has continued for over a century and becomes more colorful and spectacular each succeeding year.

*Much of the content of this page is courtesy of :

The Philadelphia Mummers Association


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