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.
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.
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.
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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