Whittlesea Straw Bear Festival-Origins
In Whittlesea, from when
no one quite knows, it was the custom on the Tuesday following Plough Monday (the
1st Monday after Twelfth Night) to dress one of the confraternity of the plough
in straw and call him a 'Straw Bear'. A newspaper of 1882 reports that "...
he was then taken around the town to entertain by his frantic and clumsy gestures
the good folk who had on the previous day subscribed to the rustics, a spread
of beer, tobacco and beef".
The bear was described as having great lengths of tightly twisted straw bands
prepared and wound up the arms, legs and body of the man or boy who was unfortunate
enough to have been chosen. Two sticks fastened to his shoulders met a point over
his head and the straw wound round upon them to form a cone above the "Bear's"
head. The face was quite covered and he could hardly see. A tail was provided
and a strong chain fastened around the armpits. He was made to dance in front
of houses and gifts of money or of beer and food for later consumption was expected.
It seems that he was considered important, as straw was carefully selected each
year, from the best available, the harvesters saying, "That'll do for the
The tradition fell into decline at the end of the 19th century,
the last sighting being in 1909 as it appears that an over-zealous police inspector
had forbidden 'Straw Bears' as a form of cadging.
Straw Bear Festival-Revival The custom was revived in 1980 by the
Whittlesea Society, and for the first time in seventy years a 'Straw Bear' was
seen on the streets accompanied by his attendant keeper, musicians and dancers,
about 30 in all. Various public houses were visited around the town as convenient
places for the 'Bear' and dancers to perform in front of an audience - with much
needed refreshment available!
The Bear is constructed in a more practical way now, the straw being fixed
to a suitable garment, the head supported on a metal frame on the shoulders. This
arrangement allows the costume to be removable which is essential as the length
of the processional route and the time taken necessitates two persons 'driving
the bear'. The person donning the costume is adding something like 5 stone to
his own weight.
The procession now contains over 250 dancers, musicians
and performers from various parts of the British Isles performing traditional
'Molly', 'Morris', 'Clog' and 'Sword. There is also American style 'Appalachian'
dancing, street performances and Mummers plays. A decorated plough pulled by a
local Morris side is now a established part of the procession.
the Straw Bear has made friends with a German Straw Bear from Walldürn near
Frankfurt, a town that celebrates its own Straw Bear Festival on the Monday before
Although the festivities begin earlier in the week, the
Saturday is the only day on which the 'Bear' makes an appearance before the 'Bear
Burning' on the Sunday. This leaves the way open for a new bear to be created
from the next season's harvest.
Bear Festival 2009 - The Players
This year's invited teams attending
Saturday are: Boggarts Breakfast