If you live in Philadelphia, you know what a Mummer is. But if you’re not from around here, you are probably wondering, “what the heck is a Mummer?” I’ll get to that in a minute. I was approached locally to share some of the information about the new Mummers parade route. My response was, “Sure, but I’d love to also highlight some of what is going on in the Mummers community as far as disabilities.” Wow! I am just amazed at some of the great stories. Philly should be proud to be home to the Mummers.
Side Note/Disclaimer: I am sharing these stories in the spirit of inclusion, not inspiration porn. I was asked many years ago, to help promote the Mummers parade and the new parade route. I responded that I would, but only if I could share stories about disabled Mummers, because those stories get very little exposure. And, inclusion begets inclusion. Most would assume that someone who is blind cannot walk the entire Mummers parade. But guess what? Presume competence, because he can.
What is a Mummer?
The Mummers date back a few centuries. The practice of dressing up and marching around from house to house, making noise and celebrating dates back to the days before George Washington. The silliness started in Sweden, and then when it was brought to America it was most popular in Philadelphia due to the large Swedish population that we had.
For a brief time, George Washington welcomed these folks. Then they were outlawed and then the laws were abolished. Around 1900 the city of Philadelphia began its official sponsorship of this New Year’s Day tradition.
The Mummers have five divisions:
- Wench Brigade
- String Bands
- Fancy Division
- Fancy Brigades
Within each of those, there are dozens of smaller clubs or clubhouses made up of local families. They practice all year long for the New Year’s Day competition and for many families it is a tradition and a social outlet.
But more than a social outlet, they often donate their time and talents to performing at various events and facilities throughout the Philadelphia region, as well as help with things like the search for missing college student in Manayunk and doing some fundraising for the female Philadelphia firefighter who recently lost her life.
Mummers Parade Route 2020
If you’ve ever seen clips of the famous Mummers parade, you’ve no doubt seen lots of bright colors, sequins, heard the string bands and just a bunch of craziness. It is a lot of fun. If you would like to see it in person, the parade begins at 9:00 in the morning on New Year’s Day. The Fancy division is indoors at the Pennsylvania Convention Center. You can also watch it at PHL17.com.
But behind all of that, there are some great stories about Mummers and people with disabilities and some real inspiration. This first story is my favorite.
Blind and Autistic Man set to strut for his 25th Mummers Day Parade
I just love this story. Danny Howlett was a born Mummer. His father is completing his 45th parade this year. Their family has Mummer in their blood, having done it for many generations. But, Danny was also born with autism and he’s blind. We have all been there, right? Sitting with those doctors, receiving that news. And no doubt, Danny’s parents had high hopes of him also being a Mummer to follow in his father’s footsteps.
Being blind and autistic, you’d think that his parents would move on, right? Nope! They didn’t let that stop them and Danny actually did his first Mummers parade at age 3. That’s pretty amazing even by today’s standards.
Let alone what was the norm 25 years ago! On January 1, Danny will be completing his 25th New Year’s Day parade as a Mummer. Isn’t that amazing? Danny graduated from Royer-Greaves here in Chester County and he’s in the PEP program which is Programs Employing People on Broad Street in the city. (This post was originally published in 2014, which was his 25th parade.)
Danny and his father will be with the Riverfront Wench Brigade this year. Dad reports that they will be wearing black and purple if you want to try to spot them. You can see the approximate times on the Mummers schedule. I had to ask, “If he’s blind, how does he learn the struts and the moves and follow along with the group?” Dad said he just loves the music, feels it, and just loves to dance. As he said, he was a born Mummer!
As we ended our chatting, and I told him of the post I was putting together, he said, “Oh, then you have to hear the story of this buddy of mine…his son is doing his first parade this year.” So here is their story.
Young Man with Autism struts down Broad Street for the first time.
There’s a young man named Doug who is living with autism in a residential facility in South Jersey. He happened to meet a retired Mummer and he told the man about his love of watching the Mummers parade. One thing led to another and this New Year’s Day, Doug will be strutting down Broad Street with the Golden Sunrise Fancy Club. That group is starting the parade at 10 am, so make sure you have your TVs on to see him.
If you think about it…bright glittery colors, lots of movement and music…for some folks with autism, this event is a dream! Despite his autism, Doug is not overwhelmed by noise and crowds. He even brought the retired Mummer out of retirement who is going to strut with him. Good luck to you both and we can’t wait to watch you.
You can read the rest of Doug’s story HERE.
LillyAnna Castelli of Delaware struts down Broad Street despite a rare disorder
Wilmington resident LillyAnna Castelli was diagnosed with Idiopathic Infantile Pyoderma Gangrenosum at 9 months of age. It is a debilitating disease that causes legions all over her body.
To care for LillyAnna and her now 5-year-old twin siblings Chris and Antoinette, their mother Gina resigned from her job as an elementary school teacher. Struggling to make ends meet, Gina turned to her ties with the Philadelphia Mummers. Gina was part of the Mummers Parade as a child. Women were welcomed to participate as Mummers during the 1970s. That was Gina’s first year. Her father participated every year since his own childhood and his uncle has been a Mummers staple for over 65 years. He is a member of the Golden Crown New Years Brigade.
Always eager to help their own, the Golden Crown NYB and their Mummer allies held a huge benefit for LillyAnna when she was first diagnosed two years ago, raising $17,000. This year, LillyAnna, now 3, and twins Chris and Antoinette will be marching in costumes in the parade for the first time.
Hearing these stories has totally changed my perception of the Mummers! I thought it was just a fun and silly tradition. Once you get to know the stories, you can see that there is a real sense of family and commitment that goes on behind the scenes.
If you have any stories that you would like to share, I’d love to hear them. And, make sure you watch the Mummers on New Year’s Day!
Blog Owner’s Note: I am updating and republishing this post. It was originally published shortly before the 2015 parade. Some of the Mummers’ ages are not current due to the age of the original article.
Additional note: This past summer (2017) I visited the Mummers museum in south Philly. It was my first time, despite having lived about 30 miles from it for decades. It’s really interesting and exploring south Philly was fun too.