Saturday, December 30, 2006

"Here We Stand at Your Door, As We Did the Year Before...."

"I'm looking over a four leaf clover that I overlooked before/
One is for sunshine, the second is rain/
third is for roses bloom in the spring/

No need explain' the one remaining is somebody I adore/
I'm looking over a four leaf clover that I overlooked before."
Cue drums, banjos, saxes, screaming, dancing.

Here in Philly, it's that time again. And not a minute too soon.

The rest of the world may live it up on New Year's Eve, but in this most-contrarian of places, the real party kicks off on 2007's first morning with the 107th Mummers Parade.

For an outside audience, words would fail to explain why and how 15,000 marchers -- mostly men, most of whom spend the other 364 days of the year working at the ports and in the trade-unions -- never fail to begin the calendar's cycle in makeup, ostrich-plumed costumes, or the traditional "Wench suit" of long braids and a sequined satin frock. But especially in the little corner of South Philly where I was raised that remains Mummerdom's vibrant heart, it's our sacred tradition bar none, a celebration of family and continuity, a prayer for the future and a thanksgiving for the blessings of the past.

The parade is comprised of four divisions, representing its historic evolution from a band of gun-toting revellers -- the Comics (still revelling, but without the firearms) -- to the choreographed, Broadway-esque spectacle of the Fancy Brigades. Whether it's the fracas that is Froggy Carr or the quasi-martial precision of Shooting Stars, the ten-hour strut up Broad Street, the city's main drag, melds into one joyous, raucous festival -- a ritual that, for the most part, remains non-corporatized and strictly in-house.

The road to January 1 is a year-round labor of love for the clubs, and the cottage industry of costume-makers, musicians, drill-masters and the like who, though not actually suited up on the street, form as much a part of the finished product as the marchers themselves. Arguably the most emblematic part of the parade, however, are the String Bands, whose members usually stay working through the year playing far-flung parades, weddings and other private gigs to help defray the huge expenses incurred to execute their four-and-a-half minutes in the City Hall spotlight. (Believe me, it ain't about the prize money.)

Through the miracle of YouTube, here's a taste, courtesy of last year's first-placer, Fralinger String Band:

Though wedded to its traditions, some have changed. For several years in the late '90s, the parade was moved to the main east-west span of Market Street, a decision which drove the Mummers crazy and were eventually able to have reversed. In an attempt to lure out-of-towners -- and reopen Broad Street to traffic at an hour earlier than 10pm -- the brigade judging was transferred into the Convention Center, though the clubs still march for a portion of Broad (albeit sans floats). The onetime route that comprised something near ten miles has been shortened to about three; the former 6am start-time has been pushed back to 9. The crowds numbering six and seven deep throughout are no more. And the marchers' triumphant, night-ending return to the epic block party on their home base of Second Street ("Two Street") is now punctuated by cops, cattle-chutes and curfews.

For all that, though, some things have gotten even better with time.

As with almost all things South Philly, the church looms large over the day; just as the overwhelming majority of Mummers are the descendants of the Irish immigrants on whose shoulders the old neighborhood was built, once upon a time, the steps of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Rectory at the foot of Mummers' Row became an impromptu reviewing stand as Fr Thomas Wassel held court and blessed the passing strutters.

In the days when he walked the earth, Wassel -- a son of the upstate coal country who spent most of his 53 years of ministry along Two Street, where he became less a legend than a demigod -- was the only party all sides trusted to receive their annual marching themes, ensuring that no two would take up the same idea and that no premature leaks would spoil the contest.

The longtime pastor died in 1996, but his impact remains palpable; with an Augustinian brother now "keeping" the themes and each of the bigger groups now boasting at least one chaplain of their own, most will gather tomorrow night at Mt Carmel as the church gets packed out the doors for yet another year of the Mummers' Mass. The bands play prelude and postlude, club members serve the ministerial roles, parade participants receive a special blessing, a special tribute for deceased Mummers is observed, and symbols of the four divisions -- including a pair of golden fancy boots and Wassel's Mummers' Doll -- are placed near the altar.

The only question that hangs over this year's march -- well, beside the perennial "Who's gonna win?" -- is the weather. Monday's forecast is calling for showers, and an early-morning conference call will determine if the parade will be delayed 'til Sunday, the 6th.

Thing is, though, rain's slated for then, too.

So, if this keeps up, it might just be that the (indoor) February ritual of the Show of Shows could end up taking place before the actual strut. Whatever the case, whenever it actually happens, it'll be no less joyous. But the wait, if there is one, will indeed be painful.

Happy New Year from Mummerville!