What do you call a middle-aged guy who dresses in sequins, feathers and glitter; applies copious amounts of makeup to his face; and shakes his ass up and down the middle of the main street of town?
A transvestite prostitute?
Maybe. But if you live in Philadelphia, and it's New Year's Day, you might call him a Mummer.
For those of my readers who've never heard of the Mummers, you can check out the official website here, or to quote a National Geographic article:
They’re called Mummers (probably after the German word for disguise)—thousands of mostly white blue-collar guys who nearly every January 1 since 1901 have paraded through the city in wild array from head to spray-painted toe.
The origins of the Mummers are rooted in history but nobody really agrees how far back dates the New Year's Day tradition of getting dressed up in wild costumes and playing in bands while marching down the main drag (and I do mean drag) of Philadelphia. Swedish New Year's celebrations? English re-enactments of St. George and the Dragon? Medieval Christian mystery plays? Who knows? Who cares?
My dirty little secret: I just don't get Mummers.
Now I love Philadelphia. I have more affection and loyalty to this, my adopted city, than I ever felt for the town in which I grew up. Tastykakes, soft pretzels and cheesesteaks? Love 'em. Independence Hall still gives me chills. Boathouse Row, the cobbled streets of Chestnut Hill, people-watching at Rittenhouse Square, history and culture and architecture and so much more. I'm diligently working on my Philly accent (the hallmark of which is the long "o" pronounced like this: round your lips the normal way but say "ew". "Coo-ew--ke." "Ho-ew-agie.") I know that it's Pash-a-yunk, not "Pass-ee-yunk" and I was even willing to watch the moderately bad TV show "Hack" in order to enjoy the backshots of our faire city. But Mummery?
Mummers face a nearly insurmountable hurdle by the fact that they strut their stuff on New Year's Day, in the morning. I don't have to spell it out for you, do I? Hangovers? Getting up at the crack of dawn? Standing on a street corner in the middle of winter for hours, with no bathroom in sight and some other hungover sap breathing vile fermented beer breath down your back while sitting in the lawn chair he put there to save his place ten hours ago? That's enough to ruin it for me right there.
Mummery gets a second, nearly fatal blow from the disturbing associations it presents. "Mummer" sounds suspiciously like Mummenschanz. If Mummenschanz doesn't creep you out, then you're reading the wrong blog, my friend. Moreover, a mummer is, when you look at it, really just a sparklier, glorified clown. Was it Jay Leno who called clowns "anthrax-ridden entertainment from the fifteenth century?" I would not go so far as to say clowns scare me, but I don't really like them. They don't make me feel happy or jolly: instead I find them vaguely disturbing and irritating, and have an uncontrollable urge to shove that poodle made of tied weiner balloons up their polka-dotted asses.
It may also have to do with my musical tastes. I'm not a big ukelele kind of gal. And hearing a tinny version of "Oh Dem Golden Slippers" on a banjo isn't my idea of musical paradise.
Probably most of it, however are certain cultural assumptions that I make. I can't help feeling that much of this mummery business is just an excuse for Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble to get out of the house and away from their (nagging, castrating harridans they call) wives and (whining, demanding) kids for a couple of hours every day. A way for the good ole boys to play in their treehouse -- no girls allowed, just like Spanky and Alfalfa. A place where manly men can drink beer and enjoy fart jokes and talk about how little sex their wives want to have with them, while scratching their pot bellies through their Eagles--I mean, Iggles-- T-shirts.
And some of it is the inescapable irony that these same guys who would no doubt beat the crap out of a man at a bar for seeming overly effeminate, or who firmly believe "homos" shouldn't be allowed to march in the St. Patrick's Day Parade, spend so much time, money and attention acting like the biggest bunch of drag queens on January 1st each year. (Although I suspect most self-respecting drag queens wouldn't be caught dead in those Bozo-meets-Uncle-Sam outfits.)
Philadelphia, I'll keep.
But you can have the Mummers.