A possible change to the Mummer’s Day Parade, reportedly backed by leaders of all five Mummers divisions (comics, wenches, string bands, fancies, and fancy brigades), would not only reverse the route to run south instead of north, but it would also cut out South Philadelphia altogether. This is a response to that potential action.
Each New Year’s Day for the past 30 years, my home in Packer Park has been the destination for our family and friends. Thanksgiving and Christmas may have come and gone, but no matter the familial trials and tribulations of the year, we all knew: There was one last hurrah before the end of the holiday season.
We all knew where to be on Broad Street and that, when it got too cold at the parade, there was a bowl of escarole soup to get you started, waiting at Nonna and Nonno’s (that’s Grandmom and Grandpop, in Italian). Crystal cheese bowls were passed down the table — and by table, I mean at least four or five of them, lined end to end through the center of the house, still adorned from the holidays, with chairs and family packed in all around.
And it wasn’t just soup — there’d be lasagna, manicotti, and a full roast pork, legs tied, mouth open and cooked to a perfect crisp; pizzelles, and torrone tucked away on the sideboard, with the nuts, for later.
As kids, we’d wait anxiously for that one group of cousins to arrive for one more trip down to Broad Street to catch the tail end of the string bands. Sure, we’d been there all morning, but we could never get enough of the excitement and fervor at Broad and Oregon on New Year’s Day.
For me, Jan. 1 is the best day there is in the city of Philadelphia. Everyone’s your friend. On no other day of the year could you walk from Center City down to South Philadelphia and be greeted by such exalted enthusiasm on each and every block. When I was given press credentials one year to cross the barrier and take photos on the street, it was one of the proudest days of my life.
It’s about neighbors and community
In South Philadelphia, people stream toward their corner on Broad Street from east, west and south, to Shunk, Porter, Ritner, Wolf, Jackson … on up through Ellsworth — all 20 of the blocks below Washington Avenue.
There are dozens more little streets in between, and thousands of families there to celebrate and support a tradition more than a century in the making, each with their own personal stories and each with a connection to the parade deeper than this year’s discussion of a proposed inverted, South Philly-less route.
For me and my family, the parade begins at Broad and Oregon. We make our way up to the block between Shunk and Porter, strutting excitedly from Packer Avenue, through the tunnel and across Marconi Park, past the brigades prepping, practicing, laughing and milling around, waiting their turn to perform.
People line the street, backed up against the brick-front homes and businesses, stacked up on the front steps, each level angling for a better view. A steady stream of people courses up the sidewalk in front of us — teens in their Christmas gets, moms pushing strollers of glow stick-wielding toddlers, and the women in their furs, dressed to the nines to traverse the New Year’s Day crowds.
Between here and the street, a dozen people deep, a strutting mass of South Philly’s finest is singing, dancing and drinking. Families pass the little ones to the front, trusting they’ll make their way safely to the other kids lining the curb — as many as can squeeze in — hanging onto the yellow-and-blue barricades and picking out targets for their cans of silly string. And when one gets tired or hungry, the crowd parts and ushers the child back into the arms of an awaiting loved one.
And in front of this: a jovial police officer, bopping along to the music of the next brigade. Sure, he gets serious when a lady or two breaches the barrier for a quick strut in the street. But he’s never a spoilsport, allowing the ladies a moment before reinforcing the rules.
Because, these people aren’t tourists.
They aren’t rowdy hooligans.
They are neighbors.
They are the men and women who trudge through life in this gritty city, 364 days a year, to let it all hang out for one day. A day that Philly collectively lets its freak flag fly. A day when hard-worked men dress in sequins and feathers — a tradition they pass down to their children, the lucky ones, who will don those ribbons one day to walk the route with pride.
The Mummers Parade is unlike any other. You don’t have to go to JFK Boulevard. The men and women of the Mummers brigades raise money all year long to pay for their costumes, props and set pieces. They pay their way in dues and sweat, performing for the people — where they are — in the neighborhoods of South Philadelphia.
Adapting to changes, but only so far
Over the years we have seen changes — like when the fancies moved to the Convention Center. This past year, the route was shortened, cutting out my beloved block. But we adapted, moving toward Ritner and finding a place among that block’s most loyal.
Now, for reasons of finance or politics, I’m sure, it looks as if South Philly may lose its place among the worthwhile audiences. Reasons for the proposal cited by recent news stories include a TV-friendlier parade, lessening the gaps between brigades, a chance to give the mummers more time to “enjoy themselves.”
This feels to me like the pointy end of a very dirty stick — especially coming from the Mummers organizations themselves, and not just someone in the city’s parks department.
Since Nonna and Nonno moved to New Jersey a few years back, I’ve maintained the traditions of the Packer Park family home — from Sunday gravy dinners and burnt BBQ birthdays to my wedding day, holidays and, yes, New Year’s.
And my story is not unique. Families in this city grow and buy homes on the same street or around the corner. It’s what bind us. It’s all about tradition and family in this part of town, Italian heritage aside. It’s who you know and who they know.
South Philly’s roots run deep. New Year’s Day is part of that. It’s in our blood. And it’s part of what makes living in this city worthwhile.
Shortening the parade route would cut out thousands of families and generations yet to come. And when you force 20 blocks of Philadelphians up onto Washington Avenue, what do you think will happen? I’m concerned there will be a situation that the city is not going to appreciate.
South Philly en masse is not something I like to subject my family to (kind of like the Parkway on the Fourth of July — a roving flash mob, and a shooting waiting to happen). And I’m sure I’m not alone.
I image those who do venture out will be the rowdiest of the bunch, those who won’t think twice about starting a fight. And the families who wait all year for the parade on Broad Street will huddle in their homes, watching glumly in front of the television set, bemoaning the day that should have been and this year’s traditions lost.