The Mummers, New Year’s Day, Philadelphia since 1900

Mummers for Mamas!!  This is an article I wrote for the first issue of my zine “Madre Zenith” back in 2005.  I put out maybe 11 issues over about 5 years, chronicling the madness that was my life with the move to the country, having surprise twins, and raising four daughters in their early years.  We went to the Mummers parade this year and it was as glittery and glamorous as ever. Text refers to 2005, photos are from this year.

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L – Mummer with backplate, R- Mummer dressed as a baby with typical Mummer parasol – sometimes parasols are 3 tiered, and yes, he also has a baby bottle 

It’s hard to believe it’s a secret, with all the banjos, sequins, and 30-foot tall floats, but folks outside of the Delaware Valley don’t seem to know about the Mummers.  When I was 10 and we moved from Reading, PA to Painesville, OH, I couldn’t believe that when New Years Day rolled around it happened without the locals parading in their makeup with umbrellas and shoes that were spray-painted gold. I thought that every city had a Mummer’s parade, but I was mistaken.


L – “wrong way” theme, since the parade had changed route for 2015. R – a Mummer captain

So, you may ask, what is it? It’s a huge parade starting at the ungodly hour of 7am on January 1st, in almost any kind of weather, and it goes until after dark. There are wigs, there are high heels, there are feathered back plates worn by glittering captains of the various brigades. Brigades? Yes, there is a lot of organization to this thing. There are four categories, and clubs compete for prizes in a huge number of sub-categories, with rules and structures I can’t even begin to understand, but the whole thing is just so darn entertaining it doesn’t matter much.

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L – crowd watching a ‘jailhouse rock’ themed team, R confetti in the sky

What you do is get a good spot as early as you can on Broad Street, ideally near an intersection where the string band performers will do their thing. If you are there early enough, you can see the ‘Comics’, the first division to parade. Its hard to see what makes them a division since some are individual performers, some small groups, and some larger groups. For several years I joined a Comics Brigade of West Philly activist types and our performances were political statements, but we were not the norm. One year, a Comic performer followed us who appeared rather tipsy and inexplicably was dressed like Mr. Potato Head. It seems to me a catchall category for Mummers who don’t mind marching at the crack of dawn and don’t fit into any other division. Oh, and the ‘wenches’-usually men with two fake braids trailing down their shoulders, and frilly dresses, bloomers, and caps- are out there in the comics division, then they mingle with the growing crowds as the day progresses.

IMG_3484Men dressed in traditional wench costumes in the annual Mummers Parade on New Year's day. : Stock Photo

L- Mummers in metallic Sgt. Pepper-themed costumes, R – wenches (I had to borrow this photo, I didn’t get any wench photos!)

Next come the Fancy division of the Mummers. These are floats, as far as I can tell. It’s a bit chaotic, but definitely a crowd pleaser, especially for the preschool set. There are ten foot tall butterflies, Fabregé eggs, seahorses, knights, just a bunch of shiny fantastical creations being rolled up the street and eventually judged and ranked you can hear the sportsy commentary on local TV that day if you go inside somewhere.

Fancy division Mummer. Another borrowed photo, we missed this part in 2015.


Well, after the Fancies come the String Bands – the darlings of the day. With live music played on banjos, some horns, accordions and a few other instruments and elaborate props and choreography worthy of Broadway, the clubs perform tight, three minutes or so shows with a distinct theme. Everything is very homemade and non corporate, which is a rare thing these days. Folks work all year on these shows, hiring choreographers,comissioning costume designers and music even, just to be the best and win bragging rights till next year. This year we saw ‘Arctic Adventure’, which included a human-sized snow globe with the team captain inside and several Mummers pulled in Mummer dogsleds while the 50-member band played a sort of polka version of ‘Walking in a Winter Wonderland’ or something in a medley of snowy songs. There were also polar bears and penguins, all in their glittery air-brushed glory. I think they came in like 17th place or something. Other highlights from other teams were: a knight being lifted 40 feet in the air by some backstage hydraulic contraption, a street-width 30-foot high church backdrop for ‘Can I get an AMEN!’ with a working pipe organ and stained glass windows, and air cannons shooting metallic confetti some 60 feet up into the sky. All done while moving everything and everyone the seven or so miles of the parade route, and in spectacular makeup to boot. Did I mention that the overwhelming majority of these people are working class union guys in drag? “Mama, is that a man or a woman?” was heard more than once from my four-year-old, and I often wondered the same thing.

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It was dark when we saw the String Bands. L – Alice in Wonderland theme, R – farmer theme

So when the last glorious String Band passes by, and the last notes of the glockenspiel fade away, and you are about 8-9 hours into the parade, the last division begins. It is the Fancy Brigades, with their giant amplifiers and flashy dancers and more themes. Their official performances are done indoors, though, so you can only imagine what 85 people dressed like Elvis will do onstage later tonight. Just enjoy the pulsating bass of whatever disco song they are gyrating to, have a hot pretzyl, and distract your children from the balloon saleslady nearby. That is the end of the parade until next year, and Philadelphia cleans up and goes about its business as if it never happened. Except for me – I’m here to say that everyone needs to learn the strut to “O Dem Golden Slippers”, look it up on the web, do what you have to do, but get yourself to Philly one New Year’s Day and give it up for the Mummers.

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Clockwise starting top L: Jack Sparrow pirate theme String Band, our favorite – sparkly head-to-toe leotard glittery shadow dancers with a sun god-type captain in very tall feathered headdress, alien Mummer guy, Native American theme 

World’s End, January 2015

We went back for our third annual long winter weekend at World’s End State Park, a beautiful area east of Scranton, PA and very close to Rickett’s Glen and Loyalsock, two other PA state parks.  I have written about the other trips there, and this one was similar.  Beautiful hills, ice waterfalls, cozy cabins heated by woodstoves, eight or so families to play with.

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Clockwise from top L: me in front of a majestic ice waterfall, our cabin (#4 this year), partly frozen river, hiking on a trail

One thing I hadn’t mentioned in other posts about World’s End is the Cabin Notebooks – a real treasure!!  Each cabin has several notebooks going back at least 10 years.  People write whatever they want in them about themselves and their time at World’s End and the cabin.  There are mentions of hiking, wildlife, mice in the kitchen, weather, marriage proposals, family traditions, alien abductions, the lack of cell phone service, you name it.  Some people draw or write poetry.  There are teen laments about the lack of Wifi.  It is a rare and lovely look at people’s experiences and their handwriting, too!  I finally made an entry one night about the group we were with, our times hiking and eating and little things like that.

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Cabin notebooks, and another creative expression- a snowman stabbed by an icicle!

It’s a wonderful place, and I’ll share some more pictures because there’s not much more to say.

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Ohio, Jan. 2015

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snowy roads, Truly selfie

Over the river and through the woods, and across the looooong state of Pennsylvania, we went for our usual post-holiday grandparent extravaganza.  The temp was a balmy 56°F at home when we left, so I didn’t pack the usual amount of snow gear, but that turned out to be a bit of a mistake.  As we got closer the Lake Erie and the snow belt, temperatures dropped and snow fell.  We soldiered on and ended up driving through the, well, driving snow in a typical Northeast Ohio blizzard for over an hour before reaching my parents’ door.  Their thermometer showed a chilly 7ºF and a windchill below 0.  Happy New Year indeed!


Aleksander Gamme and Really rejoicing in found cheese doodles

I won’t lie- I survive some of the gorier portions of car trips by listening to various songs and podcasts. On this particular road trip as the sisterly bickering got past my tolerance level, I plugged in to a Radiolab show on, of all things, Bliss. In the first few minutes, I was captivated by the story of a Finnish explorer who is giddily surprised as he opens a cache he had buried in the Antarctic drifts for himself to find towards the end of a 90-day trek there.  His expression of surprised elation- a joyous, very Northern European YAAAAAAAAAHHH!!!! -seems so genuine yet so misplaced because he is rejoicing in the unlikely glory of… cheese doodles.

Seriously. You can listen here:

So of course I had to play this for the unblissed sisters in the car and we all had a moment of entertainment during the long drive.  Later, of course, we reenacted the scene on a cold, snowy trail.


The temperatures were low, winds were high, snow flew, and I was readying us for another foray to Pine Lodge and cross-country skiing like we did last year.  I knew we wouldn’t be skiing outside for very long, but I thought it would be worth it since we so seldom get the opportunity.  I loaded into the beleaguered car some gear, snacks, four sisters in various levels of agreement with the plan, and turned on the reluctant heater.

We were parked partly on the grass since the driveway had been so full when we arrived, and the wheels began to spin without gaining traction.  Cleverly, accustomed to such minor car crises, got out and started pushing while I was at the steering wheel.  A kind neighbor joined in and soon we were backing out of the driveway.  I began driving up the mild incline out of the housing development when the wheels again slid.  The snow was heavy and the winds strong at this point and I began to picture the rural roads between us and Pine Lodge.  My parents were away on an errand all day so would not be available if we got stuck.  My chops for this type of driving, if I indeed ever had any, were seriously degraded from the 20+ years ago I had lived in the area.  I had just driven most of the previous day getting here, and my parents house was so warm and dry… I turned the car around.  Cable TV and hot chocolate beckoned, and we heeded the call.

Penitentary Glen

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We did venture out to go hiking one frigid day, back to this lovely park with the animal sanctuary and nature center. We took a short hike and a few takes on the cheese doodle scene, and also spent time inside the nature center. They had a recuperating possum and a kestral as well, and we enjoyed bird-watching at the glassed-in area near the bird feeders. There was even a microphone outside so you could hear the bird calls!

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Mentor, Ohio 

Armed with my mom’s library card, and my brother’s gift card to a candy store for the kids, we went into the wilds of Mentor for part of a day.  The library system in Ohio is enough to make this homeschool mama in an underfunded urban system weep.  IMG_3576In addition to a well-funded park system, the library systems all over the state are repeatedly nationally recognized for excellence.  They had a children’s section larger than our entire local library!  Of course, East Coast cities have other charms like diversity, progressive politics,  and historic architecture, but sometimes I wish I could trade a little of something for better libraries.  Anyway, this is the library that started it all for me back in the early 1980’s.  It has been enlarged quite a bit, and modernized over the years.

Next stop, Malley’s!  This is a Cleveland-based chocolate and ice cream company with a new (to me, anyway) store not too far from the library. No need for words here, we loved the place!

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I went to Chardon and Sage’s Apple Orchard again with my Dad, this time the cute streets were blanketed in snow.  We went sledding at the sled hill.  There was more snow and cold. We drove off back East on a cold sunny morning, back to the other side of Pennsylvania and home.

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The Repositioning Cruise, Revisited!

Oh-Emmm-Geeeee I was just checking the prices the other day on the NYC-to-Bangkok flight and the Vancouver-to-Tokyo cruise when the prices converged!  It seemed that for our timeframe, the flights were suddenly looking more like $700 than $500 and then I decided to check on the cruise.  It was down, way down!  About $800 per person!  As in, we could afford it and justify the expense and go back to our enthusiasm about going by land/sea and literally going around the globe.  Woo-hoo!!!  I tried calling the cruise line immediately and their offices were closed.  Oh, yeah, the holidays.  So, there was Christmas and then we were gone a few days at the cabin, then on a fateful Monday between Xmas and New Year’s, I finally reached someone at customer services and talked details and thought about the budget for a fraction of a second and…put in a down payment.  Yes!

And it gets better!  The cruise goes all the way to Shanghai!  That saves me the $1000 two-day trip we were going to take from Japan to Shanghai.  Early forays into airbnb show much friendlier pricing in Shanghai compared to Tokyo when the cruise ends, also we could take the side trip to see the terra cotta warriors from Shanghai as I had researched, before heading to SE Asia.  Also wonderful, the cruise stops in Alaska for a day so we could explore there without paying for a hotel.  Also happily, it stops for 3 days in Japan!  Two in Kobe and one in Tokyo, again with the day trips and no need for hotel.  So we are bagging the 24-hour flight from NYC to Bangkok and we are back to hoping our car will make it to Vancouver about eight months from now.

Yay for concrete plans and driving across the country!  Now to continue to work on the budget, rent out the house, get passports, etc. Did I just say eight months?!?! I gotta sign off!

The Rockettes, The Renaissance, and a Really Ridiculous Oz – December 2014

We have had a particularly theatrical month. Actually, a lot of it happened over a single week.  The kids went from the stage to the audience and then to another show.  Cleverly was Toto, a Lady from the 1600’s, and had a chorus/dancer role in a teen production – all in a few days!  Let’s start with NYC.




Top: us in front of Radio City. Bottom: just two of the elaborate sets from the show.  Lower R had a moving double-decker bus and lower L a functional ice rink

We did our usual Christmas trip to Manhattan for a day, and this time we saw The Rockettes!  Only the kids kept calling them the Chipettes – if you are blissfully unfamiliar, I envy you.  The Chipettes are female versions of The Chipmunks and they do really annoying renditions of pop songs, think a chorus of Lady Gagas being played too fast and you’ll have the idea.

Anyway, there we were at Radio City Music Hall a week or so before Christmas watching the renowned holiday spectacular.  It was pretty entertaining, what with the glitter, fireworks, floating light balls, full live orchestra, real camels, and of course the singer/dancers themselves.  The American-ness of the event struck me.  It is a specific mix of patriotism, Jesus, and sex that to me typifies mainstream US culture.  In one act, they removed faux winter coats to show their tighter outfits, in another they made a nativity scene.  The audience was exclusively white and noticably on the silver-hair part of life.  The dancers are as precise in their actions as a drill team.  Their are roughly 50 of them in their sparkly leotards, at various times dolls, reindeer, toy soldiers, Santas, candy canes, and other costumes I am forgetting.  We were entertained, and I can check that off the bucket list.  Seems like something you should do at least once.

Yule Feast



clockwise from top R: Our table, part of the feast seen from the balcony, 3 maidens (Fiercely in center with a friend and Cleverly), the balcony

Well, I couldn’t go to Pennsic last July, but I could celebrate Yule in period clothing with the gang.  We borrowed finery from a local group and went to a gorgeous historic building for the evening activities of a day-long SCA event.  We partook in a 5-course period-appropriate meal with other garbed individuals.  It was kind of like a wedding; we didn’t know anyone, were assigned seating with strangers, but made friends pretty easily.  Once you realize everyone there is willing to dress in pre-17th century clothing and geek out on the details of life from that time, certain social conventions are already breached as a group and you just go with it!  We enjoyed some unfamiliar vegetable dishes (leek casserole, red cabbage with currants) and despite our mostly-vegetarianism tried some of the several meat dishes (chicken/apple pie, a large beef roast), and got down with the dessert table (more currants, spice cake, dearth of chocolate!).  A strolling magician came by and did a few tricks for the kids.  Later, there was Renaissance dancing with live musical accompaniment and a “dance master” who was like a square dance “caller” and described the (very simple) dance steps.  It felt a lot like very slow square dancing, it was easy and social and just fun. In a beautiful space with the clothing (much of it handmade), the food and music, it really felt magical.

The Panto of Oz

This was our homeschool theater group’s third panto.  We were in a much larger theater this year, with over twice the number of seats, a giant stage, and a large downstairs cast hang-out area with dressing rooms!!  The kids loved all of this of course, and set about rehearsing and preening like the divas that they are.


The Panto of Oz featured an obnoxious Dorothy (in silver shoes like in the book), her well-known companions, a disgruntled male mandrill, good and bad witches, Santa Clause (who reminded us he was in book 5 of the Oz series) and a chorus of mice/Munchkins/monkeys.  There was also a giant paper maché neon green Oz head that occupied my basement for several months.  Mr. Fantastic played Glinda and Auntie Em, Cleverly was several small roles, Fiercely was Toto, and the twins were in the chorus.  I was in the audience!


Oz head with the bad witch on L, Mr Fantastic as the Wicked Witch of the South (who is angry at being left out of the Oz film) on R

And that is that for now.  A couple of posts coming on other adventures, stay tuned!


Westward around the world – Original 2 year plan (notes)

I just thought I would post this in case it gives anyone information and because I am tired of seeing it in my “Drafts” section.  Obviously, this was from when I was planning to go for 2 years starting with the drive to Vancouver and the $900pp (sigh) cruise.


health insurance: $2500 for 1 year

Aug 16-Sept 10 drive to Seattle. 61 hours and 3870 miles incl stops in Cleveland, Michigan, Denver, the Grand Canyon, San Francisco, and Seattle where we ditch the car.  gas: (20 mpg, $3.50/gallon) $677,  food $500? (25 days), lodging (tent camping, staying w/friends) $500 or less? + about $1700. budget $2000 to be safe

Seattle to vancouver greyhound  4 hours $100

Sept 12- Sept 27 Vancouver to Tokyo cruise (15 nights)  ($900 x 6)= $5400

Tokyo to Shanghai by ferry 48 hours ($170 x 6)= $1020

air bnb place in shanghai for a night or two – I found a place that sleeps 6 for $59/night

Shanghai to Xian to see terra cotta warriors – $30/person for recliner seats, trip is about 20 hours.

Shanghai to Cambodia

Cambodia Nov-Jan

India Jan-March starting in the south going northward

April-June Turkey. eastern europe

July-Aug western europe and could go back home after 1 year.

Aug 20-27 Westbound Cunard transatlantic Hamburg- NYC $1500pp x 6= $9000 (should be less since not all adult tix and we will share cabin)

around same date Hamburg-NYC by plane about $1000 pp = $6000

The second year:

Aug-Oct Poland/Czeck republic?

Nov-Feb southern Spain a la soultravelers3 or stay in Spain until April cruise from Barcelona to Miami then home 4 ms. early

March to S. America? Asuncion April – June then Ecuador July-Aug?

July to Amsterdam for cruise to Boston then home

April 27 Barcelona to Miami NCL Norweigen

July 29 repositioning cruise Amsterdam to Boston 18 days Holland America

What about vaccines? The nitty gritty.

Just now, my bubble almost burst.  I got off the phone with a local Travel Medicine entity and saw my savings disintegrate before my eyes.  All that scrimping and saving, the overtime, the delayed home repairs, the paying off the credit cards… for rabies shots???

But it’s not spent yet.  There are options. I could risk a horrible death for myself and my children from vaccine-preventable causes, we could cut large portions of the trip out, we could shorten the trip.  I need more information!

I read a lot of family RTW travel blogs and I scour them for hard facts.  Where do you stay?  How do you budget?  How do you deal with kid’s boredom/illness/homesickness?  What went wrong and how did you deal with it?  There are unlimited details of activities and beautiful pictures and maps and beaches/sunsets/ruins, but practical things are surprisingly undocumented.  If you are planning to do this for realz, you need facts.

We are starting out in southeast Asia.  The CDC recommends the Typhoid and Hep A vaccines for all travelers, and the rabies vaccine for kids.  Luckily, we all have our standard shots, which include Hep A.  Rabies, however is another story.  A budget-busting type of story.  The kind lady on the phone told me that for $55 per person we can see a Travel Doctor.  Then she told me the cost of the rabies vaccine.  “$280 per shot, and each person needs 3 shots,” she told me calmly as the digit counters rolled in my mind.  If you’re doing the math, that is $330 for us to just step in the door of the travel Medicine Doctor’s office.  Then, for rabies vaccines for 1 kid, that is $840, or $3360 for all 4 kids.  Typhoid shots are $120, and the grand total for the visit + 6 typhoid shots + 4 rabies shots…$4170!!!   That’s more than the cost for all 6 of us to fly from NYC to Thailand!!  Aughhhhh!!!

OK, now another option.  Apparently one can go to a travel medicine clinic in Bangkok where the shots are much less expensive.  In fact, rabies shots are $13 at the Thai Travel Clinic, and $11 will get you a Typhoid vaccine.  The Lonely Planet discussion board directed me there from their very useful posts on the subject.  Say what you will about voluntarily getting medical treatment in another country, but I will say in return that many Americans freely choose to go to Thailand for hip replacements and other non-urgent surgeries due to the much lower prices and excellent care.  I realize this says as much about the ridiculous healthcare system in the US as it does about the level of Thai facilities, but as for the latter, forty Bangkok health organizations have the same accreditation as the hospital we use here at home does.  I even looked into the types of rabies vaccine: Verorab and Rabipur in this article by the NIH are both approved by the WHO and are considered effective.  Stick that in your syringe, Travel Medicine lady.