Lonely Planet Writer

In pictures: the long held tradition of the Whittlesea Straw Bear Festival

Last weekend saw the annual Whittlesea Straw Bear Festival being held in the small town in Cambridgeshire in the east of England, with locals taking to the streets in unique costumes to celebrate the harvest.

Whittlesea Straw Bear Festival
The three Straw Bears are led through the streets during performance. Image by Leon Neal/Getty Images
Whittlesea Straw Bear Festival
Costumed musicians prepare to take part in the festival parade. Image by Leon Neal/Getty Images

Little is known about the exact beginnings of the tradition, but it is thought to date back to at least 1882. The custom dictates that on the Tuesday following Plough Monday (the first Monday after the twelfth night of January), one of the confraternity of the plough is dressed as a straw bear and taken around the town to entertain people. The procession now contains over 250 dancers, musicians and performers from various parts of the British Isles performing as part of the event, which runs for three days at the weekend closest to the traditional date. People taking part in the event dress in an array of traditional colourful costumes, including black face paint.

Whittlesea Straw Bear Festival
Noah Randall is helped into his child’s Straw Bear costume before the festival parade. Image by Leon Neal/Getty Images
Whittlesea Straw Bear Festival
A woman wearing a crown of ivy with a face painted in black. Image by Leon Neal/Getty Images
Whittlesea Straw Bear Festival
The three Straw Bears are led through the streets during the annual Whittlesea Straw Bear Festival. Image by Leon Neal/Getty Images

The modern version of the event includes American style Appalachian dancing, street performances and Mummers plays, as well as a procession that sees a plough being pulled through the streets by workers. While the event lasts three days, each year the Saturday is the only day that the bear makes an appearance, before a ‘Bear Burning’ with the costume that makes way for a new bear to be created from next year’s harvest.

Whittlesea Straw Bear Festival
Costumed musicians prepare to take part in the event. Image by Leon Neal/Getty Images
Whittlesea Straw Bear Festival
A woman displays her Straw Bear brooches following the annual Whittlesea Straw Bear Festival parade. Image by Leon Neal/Getty Images
Whittlesea Straw Bear Festival
A man applies his make-up ahead of the parade.

The tradition fell into decline at the end of the 19th Century, but saw a revival in 1980 when the Whittlesea Society organised an event that saw the first Straw Bear taking to the streets for the first time in seventy years. In 1999, the Whittlesea Straw Bear made friends with a German Straw Bear from the Walldürn near Frankfurt, a town that celebrates its own Straw Bear Festival each February.

 
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