“Mummers X 2” — a photographic exploration of the Philadelphia Mummers Parade — is set for Trenton Free Public Library from January 11 through February 28.
The exhibition features 29 photographs of what is considered one of the oldest folk-art events in the United States.
The photographs are by two New Jersey-based journalists.
One is Bryan Grigsby; the other is Dan Aubrey.
Grigsby is a retired newspaper photographer who spent the last 30 years of his career as a photo editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Aubrey is the arts editor of U.S. 1 Newspaper and editor of the monthly Trenton Downtowner.
They were brought together by a fellow journalist and united in their interest in the Mummers.
Grigsby, originally from Florida, discovered the Mummers Parade in the mid-1980s and says, “It was love at first sight. I thought this event was the most bizarre thing I had ever seen, and I was determined to bring an outsider’s point of view to capturing the participants.”
He did so in the accompanying black and white photographs and the following statement:
‘Slouching Up Broad Street’
Two-and-a-half miles long, upwards of 20,000 moving parts and fueled mostly by alcohol, it moves slowly up Broad Street towards the Victorian monstrosity Philadelphians refer to as City Hall.
It moves with a gait, devoid of rhythm and thereby uniquely appropriate to its parts known as “strutting.” Indeed most of its parts are Anglo-Saxon Males.
The things takes over 12 hours to run its course — making its way to music made by accordions, banjos, and saxophones. A combination that should relegate the thing to a place in Hell.
Instead, however, the thing traces its roots back to the lofty gates of Olympus and the Greek word Momus, which means to ridicule.
Legend says that Momus was a Greek god who was banished from Olympus for making fun of Aphrodite’s squeaky golden slippers.
Thousands of years later the citizens of Philadelphia celebrate, in the name of this ridicule, what historians consider America’s oldest authentic folk festival, the New Year’s Day Mummers Parade. Its theme song: “Oh Dem Golden Slippers.”
The notion of raising hell on New Year’s Eve is not unique to our century. History suggests that the Swedes brought this ritual of mummering to this country in the 1600s.
English and German immigrants also brought their version of New Year’s hellraising to Philadelphia in the 18th and 19th centuries.
By the mid-1900s things had gotten pretty well out of control, with drunken citizens shooting off firearms in the streets, wearing crazy costumes, and displaying drunken behavior. By the turn of the century the city decided to get involved and finally organized the first modern New Year’s Mummers Parade in 1901. The eminent American anthropologist, Margaret Mead, was born in Philadelphia that year. It’s interesting to consider the possibility that an early exposure to the Mummers parade might have helped lead her to a life-long study of ritual human behavior.
The thing is a beast unto itself. The stench of urine and stale beer juxtapose with the beauty of colorful ostrich feathers gently flowing in the winter wind.
Rowdiness and debauchery of the comics co-exist with polished choreography of the fancy divisions. Burly blue-collar workers from South Philly put on dresses and drink to excess, staggering past steely-eyed cops who look the other way.
Television and the addition of more women and children have civilized much of the event. The different clubs compete in front of judges for city-sponsored prizes. The beast seems tame when viewed through the lens of the television eye. Sanitary and civilized. Colorful. Polite. Even professional.
The television eye has not found its way to the streets of South Philly . . . down where the Beast is born.
Aubrey, born in Philadelphia, says he learned about the Mummers when he was a child but never thought about them until he studied ancient literature and art. “The more I saw, the more the event spoke to me,” he says.
Attending the parade for the last two decades, he takes digital color photographs to capture a living event willing to embrace the genders, ethnic groups, races, and sexual orientations of the greater community.
In his following brief essay, he says that the event is way more than what one sees:
‘Hope Is a Thing with Feathers – and Booze’
The Philadelphia Mummers Parade’s physical route masks the reality that this parade is actually part of a path that travels deep into antiquity.
For what seems an official and raucous way of closing the December holidays is actually a very human way of beginning anew.
For here during one of the coldest and darkest times of the year, thousands of people abandon the comfort of their homes and join in an outdoor celebration that involves several elements that signify hope in ways easily overlooked — even by the participants.
First there are the feathers. The most representative images of the Mummers show participants dressed in oversized costumes made of gleaming white or colored plumage and allow them to take on the visages of birds or better still angels. Either shows an unconscious urge for transcendence — over darkness, over cold, and, perhaps, over fortune.
Next there is color. In a time when the colors of trees and flowers are gone, the Mummers arrive in spectacular and exaggerated outfits to turn one of the city’s main streets into a wild colored river — one that shimmers unworldly when enflamed by the sun.
Sound is also a key component, especially music from banjos and saxophones. And while the parade’s weather can be freezing and wet, the music tends to be bright and buoyant with a handful of traditional tunes. One is “Oh! Dem Golden Slippers,” which exemplifies the Mummers in several ways: dance, color, and a possible reference to the mythic story of Momus, the Greek god of ridicule, and his insult regarding Aphrodite’s slippers.
Dance, just mentioned, is also a vital element. In many ways the Mummers dance or skip through the parade and perform a special “Mummers’ Strut” — performed by both Mummers and the public when “Golden Slippers” is played — indicating a dance of life.
Then there is the blatant use of alcohol. And while its presence suggests lack of personal regulation, there is also an argument that connects it to the use of substances to create altered states of mind while performing rituals — as shamans continue to do in other parts of the world.
The actual or perceived intoxication also provides Mummers an opportunity to hide their social identities. For the parade is an occasion where costumed participants can publicly transform themselves into other genders or social strati, become solar entities, or strip themselves of social decorum and become imperfect tricksters attempting to escape both social order and physical reality — while inspiring the imaginations of onlookers.
And finally there is a direct link between the Mummers and an ancient spiritual practice, one out of the public’s eye. It happens early on New Year’s Eve with the annual Mummers Mass at Saint Monica’s Church on Third and Wolf Streets in South Philadelphia — the heart of Mummerdom.
While Mummers symbols — small parasols used by Mummers during the parade — decorate the entrance, all seems normal inside. That is until the solemn moment when a small group of worshippers approaches the altar to present a pair of golden slippers that are in turn blessed by the priest.
Then to the sound of a small group of banjos, the congregants leave the warmth of church to face the dark night of a new year but with an unconscious resolve to meet it with as much color, life, and energy that can be gathered.
No wonder the event has endured for so long. And may it continue to do so.
Trenton Free Public Library, 120 Academy Street, Trenton. Reception with the photographers Saturday, January 18, 3 to 4:30 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays, 9 a.m. to 8 p.m., and Friday and Saturdays, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. 609-392-7188.