Art, Spirit, and Wonder: Finding the Sacred Through Art​

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An Open Letter to the City of Philadelphia and the Mummers

Posted by on in Studies Blogs


(Author’s note: For those of you unfamiliar with this particular Philadelphia tradition, you can find information about it here: Because mumming is a tradition that arose out of European Pagan folk practices beginning with the Swedes and Finns who first settled in the area, I felt an especial need to address this years’ parade.

Dear City of Philadelphia,

I have always loved you and so many of your fine traditions. Cheese steaks, the Italian Market, Reading Terminal Market, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and South Street are all reasons I adore Philadelphia. My father and his father came from Philadelphia, and my Great Grandfather settled there upon landing on these shores from Italy. I was terribly saddened, however, to see what happened in some of the displays at this years’ Mummers’ Parade on New Years’ Day.

I grew up with the Mummers Parade as an annual event, we had neighbors who were mummers, and my father made sure to watch the Mummers on television, even if we did not attend in person. The Mummers were as much a tradition in my family as listening to Frank Sinatra every Sunday on WPEN, chowing down on soft pretzels and Twinkies. I have to admit that although I did not always understand what the mummers were about (it often looked more to me like an expensive excuse to get drunk and hang out on Broad Street New Years’ Day), I did get that this was most certainly a Philadelphia “thing.”

This year, however, I was terribly disappointed with the Mummers and with the parade.  The event was being advertised as a parade and “folk festival.” Certainly, the Mummers have roots going back to more than one region of Europe, and one could even find some parallels in African traditions of masquerade. As a friend pointed out to me, cross dressing and black face have long been traditions in the parade, but after the racially charged atmosphere of 2015, and the way in which cross dressing was used to mock transgender people in general and Caitlyn Jenner in particular, this year especially seemed to summarize much of what is wrong with some traditions.

Philadelphia, we can do better.

2016 saw the most diverse Mummers’ Parade yet, with efforts to make it more accessible and inclusive to traditionally underrepresented groups such as African Americans, Latinos, and gays. Sadly, this effort was marred by multiple racist and homophobic acts through out the parade. The parade itself has a history of racism and homophobia as well as anti-female acts.

Blackface was officially prohibited from the city of Philadelphia in 1964, however it has never disappeared completely from the Mummers’ Parade. Additionally, black Mummers’ clubs have been historically discriminated against since the parades’ official inception in 1901. (Prior to that, the parade was considered a public nuisance, however official attempts at shutting it down never worked).

Women were prohibited from participating in the parade up until the 1970s. Female roles in the parade were performed in drag, and Mummers’ brigades referred to them as “wenches.” Although women are now permitted to march with the brigades (or divisions), there are still groups referred to as “wench brigades.”

This year, the Finnegan’s New Year’s Brigiade created their theme all around the transition of Caitlyn Jenner. The act featured a representation of the Bruce Jenner Wheaties cereal box, and a man dressed first as Bruce Jenner, changing into Caitlyn Jenner as she appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair, while Aerosmith’s “Dude Looks Like a Lady” played in the background. As the brigade marched, a member shouted “F- the gays! F- the gays!” For the record, since this incident, this individual was banned from the brigade, however the atmosphere of transphobia and homophobia obviously made it possible for it to have occurred in the first place.

The Sammars Strutters Brigade donned brown face for an act they called “Siesta Fiesta” featuring sombreros, ponchos, and taco costumes. In other acts, performers carried signs reading “Wenches Lives Matter” and “Mummers Lives Matter.”

Again, Philadelphia, we can do better.

When I was growing up, I had neighbors who belonged to Mummers’ brigades. It is often a family tradition, passed down father to son, with the wives and mothers often sewing incredible costumes that could cost tens of thousands of dollars to create, and often weighing in around 100 pounds. The earlier Mummers were known for their String Brigades – featuring musicians playing the banjo. (My father decrying the lack of String Brigades in later years was a common Near Years’ Day theme). Hours and hours of hard work, ingenuity, and creativity go into many of the costumes. This is a part of the tradition that should not be lost, and should be accessible to anyone who wishes to participate.

I have friends who believe the parade should be banned all together, and that argument is hard to refute in the face of the hateful activities that marred this year’s parade. Having grown up in Philadelphia culture, however, I do believe in my heart that the city of Philadelphia can do better.

Fortunately, Jim Kenney, the current mayor of Philadelphia, denounced the transphobic and homophobic displays in a public Twitter comment. I can only hope that the officials of the Mummers’ Parade with take these comments – and the many others that followed the parade – to heart.

Philadelphia, like most major US cities, is a city of immigrants, and like many large urban centers, it attracts a diverse population of people of all kinds. Change must come not just from the top down of the Mummers’ organization, but from within and without. The act mocking Caitlyn Jenner should never have made it from the brigade’s club house into the parade. The Philadelphia city laws against black face should be enforced publicly.

What say you, my fair city? Can we do this? Will we do it?

This image gives me hope - it was a rare display on a day marred by hateful acts, and shows us that we CAN do better.




I remain in hope,





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Helena Domenic has been an art history nerd for her entire life, having toured the Sistine Chapel at the age of eighteen months. She never quite recovered from that experience (thankfully) and has been seeking out the sacred and profane in art ever since. She's even a real-life art history professor at a Pennsylvania university. She is also a Tarot nerd, having created her own Tarot deck, the Fellowship of the Fool.


  • Lizann Bassham
    Lizann Bassham Sunday, 03 January 2016

    Thank you for this column - 2015 was indeed been a year of seeing the realities of homophobia, transphobia, racism, and misogyny - may 2016 be a year of cultural shifts toward ending them...

  • Helena
    http:// ​Helena Wednesday, 06 January 2016

    Oh I sure hope so!

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