|Ghouls Leading the Parade in Philadelphia|
Our five-week trek through All Things Christmas draws to a close with Monday’s post on the Wise Men. But for today we’ll examining a group whose roots go back to ancient Rome. On New Year’s Day while everyone on the West Coast lines up in sunny Pasadena to watch the Rose Parade on the other side of the continent folks in Philadelphia, despite the frigid weather, will be enjoying their own event — the Mummers’ Parade.
ORIGINS IN ANCIENT ROME
The Mummers and their parade continue a tradition that extends back to about 400 BC and the Roman Festival of Saturnalia. A time of topsy-turvy turn around, during Saturnalia the slaves became the masters and the masters the slaves. People wore masks, celebrated with charades and satire, sang and danced in the streets, and exchanged gifts. When the Roman Empire forced its way into Britannia, the Celts and Druids gave the festival their own twist. Time passed, and by the Middle Ages this day of festivity had become an integral part of most Christmas celebrations.
The word Mummer comes from the term for silence...as in Mum’s the word. Going further back in history, we find the ancient Greek god, Momus, who was the personification of mockery, blame, ridicule, scorn, and stinging criticism. In Greek mythology Momus was expelled from heaven for criticizing and ridiculing the other gods. In other words, Momus was silenced.
TRAPPING A WREN ON ST. STEPHEN'S DAYBefore the festival moved to New Year’s Day, boys trapped a wren on St. Stephen’s Day (December 26th) and killed it. A legend held that St. Stephen hid from his attackers in a bush and his position was given away by a wren perched in the branches. The boys were punishing the wren for its part in the stoning of St. Stephen 1,500 or so years earlier. Having killed the wren, the boys tied its body to a stick and blackened their faces with charcoal, presumably so they wouldn’t be recognized. Then they went door to door in a sort of trick or treat mode, waving the dead bird in people’s faces and waiting for them to give them some reward. You’ll be happy to know that in the few places where this part of the festival still survives, they now use a fake bird.
DANCERS AND THE MUMMERS' PLAYA second part of the celebration is the presence of Morris Dancers or Mummers. These groups dressed in wildly outrageous costumes and performed what came to be called the Mummer's Play. The play’s cast consists of a King, usually Saint George, who expresses the need to kill someone, typically a Saracen knight. Saracen was a term used by the ancient Romans to refer to a people, ethnically distinct from the Arabs, who inhabited the deserts near the Roman province of Syria. One of earliest references to them is in Ptolemy's Geography, in which he uses the Greek term Sarakenoi when referring to a non-Arabic people living in the northwestern Arabian peninsula.
In Christian writing, the name came to be interpreted to mean those empty of Sarah or not from Sarah. In the Eighth Century St. John of Damascus wrote, “There is also a people-deceiving cult of the Ishmaelites, the forerunner of the Antichrist, which prevails now. It derives from Ishmael, who was born to Abraham from Hagar, wherefore they are called Hagarenes and Ishmaelites. And we call them Saracens, inasmuch as they were sent away empty-handed by Sarah; for it was said to the angel by Hagar, Sarah has sent me away empty-handed."
BACK TO THE ACTION ON STAGEReturning to our play; as it turns out, just such a Saracen Knight happens to be available, often with the name of Slasher. The two go at it until Slasher is mortally wounded. At this point, either Slasher's mother appears, wailing for a doctor, or the George character has a change of heart and requests the aid of a doctor himself. The call goes out for a ten dollar doctor, but a voice from offstage replies, “There is no ten dollar doctor.” The request is then changed to a five dollar doctor. The less expensive doctor appears and cures the injured Knight.
While the play itself is still preformed in some parts of England, Mummers in Philadelphia have opted for a lavish, and suitably garish, parade instead. Their huge fan of feathers and electric colors bring to mind Rio de Janeiro’s Carnaval rather than a Medieval morality play, though the Mummers Parade features decidedly fewer women and no nudity. They have also dispensed with the now politically incorrect blackface.
MUMMERS IN AMERICAN HISTORYThe Mummers has a long and proud history in the city of Brotherly Love. Reports of rowdy groups parading on New Year’s Day in Philadelphia date back to before the American Revolution. Prizes were offered by merchants in the late 1800’s. In January, 1901 the first official parade offered about $1,725 in prize money from the city.
The Mummers Parade is serious business in Philadelphia. Like its companion, The Rose Parade, clubs and organizations work on the costumes and practice all year for their one day in the sun, or as is the case in Philadelphia, the wind, rain or snow. Performances and costumes are judged and there is a complicated set of rules the marchers must follow when being judged.
We hope you've enjoyed this foray into the lore, legend, and history of All Things Christmas. I’ve assembled all of these Christmas posts into an Ebook. It also includes a bonus supplement consisting of a five-chapter segment consisting of the Christmas story from my novel WITNESS. If you'd like to have this material to refer back to in the future, it's only $3.99 in formats compatible with all popular Ereaders as well as for on-screen reading.
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As mentioned earlier, our final post of the Christmas season, devoted to the Wise Men, will be on Monday, January 2nd.
Until then, we wish Peace, Blessings and a Happy New Year!
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