Saturday, December 31, 2005

"Hail! Hail! The Gang's All Here...."

Question: When can a celebrant don a chasuble adorned with sequins and hints of ostrich feathers and not be seen as a pure, 100% Daughter of Trent?

Answer: Happy New Year in Philadelphia!

Tomorrow, the greatest civic ritual ever devised in the history of Western civilization marks another year as the 105th Mummers' Parade steps off on Broad Street, the main drag here.

The story of how trigger-happy Irish immigrants who called themselves Shooters became Mummers, and lured upwards of 1 million people to the heart of the city to sing, dance and party is a uniquely Philadelphia one, and one of those things that make this place great, and why I love it that I'm still here. New York can have its big Ball, and the rest of the world can have the night of the 31st, but New Year's Day and the wenches belong to us. And we wouldn't have it any other way.

The 10,000 or so marchers who comprise Mummery's four divisions (Comics, Fancies, String Bands and Brigades) may take over Broad Street for the day, but the heart of the operation lies not far from my childhood home in South Philly, down by the Delaware River along 2nd Street. The guys may just have the one day to show their stuff in the sight of the world, but picking themes (which change annually), designing and making the lavish costumes, fund-raising, "drills" (rehearsals), etc. is a year-round operation, and when you live near 2nd, it's a part of your daily life. And even for those who've long gone, it has its unmistakable way of staying with you always....

Tonight, in accord with tradition, I'll make my one visit of the year back to the church at the foot of "2 Street" where I received my sacraments, the place which has welcomed, nurtured, married off and buried four generations of my family. Every year on New Year's Eve, the parish hosts a gigantic Mummers' Mass -- and it's one of the most unique, and effective, examples of inculturation you'll ever see in your life.

The celebrant's vestment is usually a special white chasuble (the aforementioned one with gold sequins) pulled out for this event. The processional is the Mummers' version of "When the Saints Go Marchin' In" (performed with banjos, saxophones and glocken-spiels), after which a proper opening hymn (with organ) is sung. All Lectors wear their "club" jackets -- in the colors of their group, with the name and logos emblazoned -- a sequined parasol, gold-painted wench boots and banjo are placed before the altar, and the church is downright packed with a steady stream out the door. It's a big church, mind you, so this means 1,500 people or more even when what used to be called The Circumcision isn't held on a Sunday. It's just a very popular event and it means the world to the neighborhood. And as "Alabama Jubilee" and "O'Dem Golden Slippers" -- the Mummers' theme songs -- break out for the recessional, the place goes wild with cheering, whooping and dancing as the celebrants do the Mummers' strut back down the aisle.

There is no more joyous thing in the whole world.

And then, after a quiet Eve, all hell breaks loose tomorrow. To Broad Street for the actual parade and back, and then the trudge from my parent's house, all the way up 2nd for about five miles, stopping every 500ft to head into the homes of people I only see once a year (i.e. January 1) for soup, beer, and catching up. It's just a great way to start the year, the party runs long into the morning of the 2nd, and... well... there's no other place I'd be.

And if you ever experienced it, believe me, you'd feel the same way.