Who knows what New Year’s Day celebrations in Philadelphia would look like had it not been for the childhood antics of a city councilman in the 1800s.
While mummery dates back hundreds of years in some European cultures, come Jan. 1, Philadelphia will ring in its 119th Mummers Parade — a now-iconic tradition that became an official celebration in 1901.
Philadelphians should pay some thanks to H. Bart McHugh. The reporter and theater promoter is often cited as the man who helped make the event official in Philly, but he wasn’t the only key figure. An Inquirer obituary calls John H. Baizley, who served as a councilman for two decades, the “Mummers' Parade originator” and “father of Philadelphia’s unique New Year’s festival.”
McHugh pitched the idea to create memorable New Year’s festivities while controlling what were “historically chaotic celebrations” to Mayor Samuel Ashbridge, Patrick Glennon, a communications officer at the Historical Society of Philadelphia, detailed in an article for the Inquirer last year about the parade’s beginnings.
“And after the Civil War, these celebrations got more and more rambunctious and larger, and a businessman by the name of Bart McHugh went to City Council and the city of Philadelphia and pitched that they put all the celebrants in one location,” said Mark Montanaro, a volunteer museum curator at the Mummers Museum and a longtime Mummer.
But as the Inquirer’s 1924 obituary for Baizley describes, what he did as a kid, and later as a councilman, also helped shape what eventually became the parade.
“The evolution of the Mummers' parade dates back to the time when John Baizley was the leader of his neighborhood gang in his boyhood days. At that time the lads, attired in weird costumes, would fare forth in search of cake, nuts, apples and money, in much the same manner as young revelers do on Hallowe’en now. Later, as they grew older, the boys organized into units and to the strains of music marched through the streets of their neighborhood, with Baizley always in the forefront. Gradually the residents came to look forward to the celebration each New Year’s Day, and even persons from other sections of the city would flock to South Philadelphia to witness it. Baizley worked out a plan to have his club parade on Broad street in the future and induced other clubs to join, so that ultimately, when he became a councilman and persuaded Council to recognize and appropriate prizes to the paraders, the Mummers' classic came into being.”
“The name Shooters started because the early celebrants were shooting guns in the air to celebrate the New Year and that was a banned practice obviously, because it was dangerous,” Montanaro said. “Mummers — some of the old timers say the media gave us the name Mummers.”
Firing guns in the air "was a macho ritual with these South Philadelphia urban cowboys” and before the 1900s, “celebrators had formed gangs that often fought pitched turf wars to welcome the new year,” the Inquirer wrote in 2000.
But of course, the planning of the city’s first Mummers parade involved many more helping hands than just Baizley and McHugh, according to Inquirer articles detailing meetings leading up to the event that addressed everything from budget issues to decorations.
“Philadelphia will on this occasion, as she has always done, excel,” said a sub-committee chairman about a week before the parade. “and I am sure that we will have a New Year’s celebration that will be a pleasant memory for a long time to come.”