But she said it was overdue to push the Mummers into better self-policing. “Every year, we have this conversation on Jan. 2; every year, they say it’s going to be better, it’s not going to happen again,” she said. “And it happens again.”
Ms. Bass said she hoped the final City Council bill would include a potential ban for groups whose members broke the rules. That way, she said, members would be more motivated to stop bad behavior and say, “‘I’m going to pull you aside so that you’re not embarrassing our city in front of our audience, so that you’re not participating in this racism.’”
She added that there had long been a disconnect between Philadelphia’s African-American community and the Mummers, noting that the participants are predominantly white. “There has been a feeling of exclusion and of disrespect by the Mummers that has been allowed to permeate forever,” she said.
The Mummers tradition in Philadelphia first took shape in the 17th century, as German and Scandinavian immigrants blended their Christmas and New Year traditions into a chaotic and often drunken celebration.
In the 1800s, waves of Irish, Italian and Polish immigration brought new traditions, and the event became a “real melting pot of cultures,” especially in the working class, said Stephen Highsmith, a former broadcaster who wrote a book on the history of Mummers.
“The costuming, originally, was taking pretty much what was on the wash line, a wife’s dress, a potato sack — anything you could get your hands on — and being silly and drinking,” he said. “Part of its heritage is to be disorganized and chaotic.”
Over the centuries, old European practices of blackface became intertwined with the rise of minstrel shows in the United States, and major cities like Philadelphia were often where they met. The tensions may have reached their highest point in the civil rights era, when judges ruled against allowing blackface, in part for fear of bloodshed.