A straw bear or Strohbär in the German language is a traditional character that appears mainly at Shrovetide (the pre-Lenten season that is the time for Christians to prepare for the Lent). The bear has tightly twisted straw bands wound up on the arms, legs, and body of a man or a boy who is unfortunate enough to have been chosen. There is also a straw wound up in a shape of a cone above the “Bear’s” head with a face that is covered wherein the person inside could hardly be able to see. The straw used could either be made of wheat, oats, rye or twigs.
The Straw Bear Festival is celebrated every year on the second weekend of January at the town of Whittlesey on Cambridgeshire in East Anglia. This town in the Fenland district is a small market town which is used to be surrounded by low-lying wet, marshy areas locally known as fens before artificial drainage begin to be used. This town which is about 6 miles from Peterborough is famous for its traditional Whittlesea Straw Bear Festival.
This event became a custom since the 1800’s. In this part of England, local farm-worker would go around the town dressed in a straw suit resembling the dancing bears thus the name straw bear. The straw bear would then dance accompanied by musicians, while the people in town would give them food or money in return.
This dancing around town happened on the Tuesday after Plough Monday which is the first Monday after the Twelfth Night and is always on January 6. This is a time when agricultural workers would return to their fields after Christmas break. But instead of returning to the fields, they would parade the best straw in the streets to get money from wealthy landowners.
However, the tradition died out at the end of the early 1900’s with the last sighting of a Straw Bear in 1909. This happened partly because of an over-zealous police who regarded the act as a form of cadging or begging, thus forbidding Straw Bears. It was only in 1980 when the Straw Bear custom was revived by the Whittlesea Society and the first straw bear was seen again on the streets of Whittlesey after more than seventy years.
The modern straw bear parade now involves more than 250 dancers and musicians coming from several parts of Britain. These performers stage traditional Molly, Morris, Clog, and Sword dancing. Aside from traditional performances, there is also American style Appalachian dancing and street performances.
The event is a three-day celebration running from Friday and continues up until Sunday. Festivities usually starts with a concert on a Friday evening. Then on the Saturday of the festival, the main event of the Straw Bear parading and dancing commences. Straw Bear along with his keepers and plough team will go in a procession starting in front of the Ivy League Club and ending outside the George Hotel for the closing ceremony. They will be accompanied by a group of musicians and dancers who will perform in different locations around the town throughout the day. Finally, the festival concludes with the bear being burnt ceremonially on Sunday.
Along with parading and burning of the bear, there are also poetry readings and storytelling sessions taking place as well as a ceilidh in the evening of the festival. A ceilidh is a social event with Scottish or Irish folk music, singing, and dancing. Also, part of the celebration is the traditional music and dancing on the streets or inside local pubs.
Through this celebration, you will be able to experience the tradition of Whittlesey and be entertained by the Straw Bears while being able to give gifts to the local ploughmen in return.