Origins of the Straw Bear
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 around 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 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 Bear".
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 1906|
Reviving the Tradition
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 rest, drink and food as available.
The Bear is constructed in a more practical way now, the straw being fixed to a suitable piece or clothing or suit, the head is supported on a metal frame on the shoulders. This allows the costume to be removable, which is essential, as the length of the parade route and the time taken, necessitates 2 people "driving the bear". The person wearing the costume is adding approximately 70 pound to his own weight.
|Another picture of the early years|
Recently the Straw Bear has made friend with a German Straw Bear from Walldurn, near Frankfurt, Germany, a town that celebrates its own Straw Bear Festival on the Monday before Shrove Tuesday the day before Lent, which is on a Wednesday.