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Ancient folk rituals in Europe celebrating fertility, birth, and renewal during annual festivals such as Halloween, Christmas, New Year's, and Easter preceded mumming in early America, a practice that matured into the modern-day Philadelphia Mummer's Parade and Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Some of the clearest parallels among these festivals are the use of costumes and masks, traveling from house to house, and a salutary chant made by a leader or captain.

The origins of mummery can be traced back to the Roman Saturnalia festivals in 400 b.c. This popular holiday, held in December, was a feast day for the god of agriculture, Saturn. During Saturnalia, the Romans celebrated the new solar year with merrymaking, music, dance, and prayers for their winter crops. Age and rank were forgotten as slaves were waited on and wore their master's clothing. A rex Saturnalitius led the revels making ludicrous commands.

Organized parading developed from masked revelers in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century European villages. The colonial settlers transplanted these traditions to America. Mummers would make noise and wear disguises to protect themselves from being recognized by evil spirits who would bring bad luck. Disguised as trees, wheat stalks, or animals, they transfigured their faces with masks, makeup, or burnt cork. One popular disguise for men was to dress as women. In some cultures it was believed that it was lucky for a male to cross the threshold first and that this good fortune would last for the year to come. The English "mummers' play" of St. George was a major influence on early American mumming. Traditionally, men would travel from house to house, performing and collecting donations and drinks. The chosen leader of the group spoke a prologue and claimed a welcome from the audience. A predecessor of this play is the "sword" or "Morris" dance, which had stock characters called "Tommy," the fool, and "Bessy," who was dressed as a woman. Similarly, in rural Ireland, boys participated in "Hunting the Wren" on St. Stephen's Day. The first group of Wren Boys to visit a house on St. Stephen's Day was believed to bring good luck. Upon arrival, the leader of the crew, the ceannaire, danced carrying a holly bush, supposedly containing the wren, while the boys sang a traditional Wren Boys song.

The Swedish settlers' Christmas custom was to travel about visiting friends and having parties. With faces smeared with red wash, burnt cork, and flour, and wearing old and comic clothes, they went from house to house visiting and performing. These groups also appointed a type of captain who would dance and sing rhymes such as:

Here we stand at your door,
As we stood the year before;
Give us whiskey, give us gin,
Open the door and let us in!

German immigrants brought with them the tradition of belsnickling, in which adults disguised themselves as half demon, half Santa Claus–type figures. These frightening men visited the village children at Christmas–time and rewarded their good behavior with gifts. There is also evidence of New Year's celebrations in revolutionary America, including parades and disguises on the part of both the American and British troops.

African American holiday parades in early America had elements of mummery as well. These celebrations, rooted in African traditions, had free exchange between spectators and performers, noise in the form of improvised music, and the firing of guns. One such celebration was the Jon Koonering Parade of the southeastern United States. Although there are scattered references to mumming activities in the major cities of Boston and New York, the concentration and consistency of the practices in Philadelphia and New Orleans create the most compelling story of mummery in early America.

Elements of the Philadelphia New Year's Day Parade date back to colonial times, though it was not officially organized until 1901. Court records of 1702 show evidence of men and women wearing masks and cross-dressing. As the popularity of masquerading grew among the lower classes, newspapers reported on the dangerous nature of the crowds and fear among the upper-class residents. These reports prompted a Public Nuisance Law regarding mumming in 1808. The Act to Declare Masquerades and Masqued Balls to be Common Nuisances, and to Punish Those Who Promote Them, made mumming in public or private illegal. However, this law was not strictly enforced, for there were no recorded convictions.

The tradition of visiting homes during the holidays began to move to the streets in the early nineteenth century. In 1839, Swedish settlers celebrating New Year's gathered in the road, disguised as clowns, and shot off their guns like their European ancestors, earning the name "New Years Shooters." The ban on mumming in Philadelphia was lifted after the Civil War and the Public Ledger for 3 January 1876, reported that the "Shooters" celebrated and paraded all of New Year's Day.

By the mid-nineteenth century, all-male social groups were popular in America. In Philadelphia, the clubs began to represent the composition of their neighborhoods' cultural background. Group activities sometimes turned violent, and the revelry turned to intimidation. Disguises aimed at mockery and degradation of rival clubs, and particularly of African Americans, Native Americans, and other ethnic groups.

"Fancy Clubs" began to spring up in the late 1880s. As the Mummers began to compete, music became a much more important aspect of their association. The parade unofficially began to organize once the clubs began to compete for cash prizes and merchandise offered by Philadelphia merchants. The first instance of a club parading up Broad Street was on New Year's Day 1888.

Carnival in New Orleans during Mardi Gras also has roots in ancient mumming. This celebration began in Italy and France and was established in America in the southern United States. The French settlers of New Orleans in the eighteenth century held elaborate masked balls under the direction of the provincial governor the marquis de Vaudreuil. The first evidence of Mardi Gras festivities among Anglican whites came in the early 1830s in Mobile, Alabama, on New Year's Day. This annual celebration eventually moved to New Orleans, where masking was also banned. But, as in Philadelphia, these laws were ignored, and the masked revelry continued.

In 1857, organized carnival clubs produced a controversy in New Orleans with French traditional celebrations, but eventually the disparate ethnicities joined together to celebrate. In 1872, the "Rex" organization marched for the first time during the New Year's Parade, with floats and outrageous costumes, and, in 1873, the tradition moved permanently to the Thursday before Mardi Gras.

See also: Carnivals, Mardi Gras, New Year's


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Valerie M. Joyce