Monday, January 16, 2017


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

    The parade now contains over 250 dancers, musicians and performers from various part of the British Isles performing traditions "Molly", "Morris", "Clog" and "Sword" (traditional English folk songs),  songs and dances.  There is also American style "Appalachian" or a type of square dancing, street performances and Mummers plays.  A decorated plough pulled by a local Morris side is now an established part of the parade.


   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.
   Although the festivities begin earlier in the week, Saturday is the only day on which the "Bear" makes an appearance before the "Bear Burning" on Sunday.  This leads the way open for a new bear to be created from the next seasons harvest.


   Just when many in the United States are done celebrating Christmas, folks in the Ukraine are just getting started.  The Julian calendar used by Orthodox Ukrainians is 13 days behind our Gregorian calendar.  That is why their Christmas is just beginning on January 6th-Christmas Eve.
   In 988 A.D., Christianity was introduced in the Ukraine.  The people were very loyal to their ancient pagan rituals of celebrating Winter Solstice and Feasts of Fertility.  The traditions of these feasts were incorporated into the Christmas tradition.

Facts about the Ukrainian Christmas or Reesdvoh

   Christmas festivities in the Ukraine begin on Christmas Eve, January 6th, with a sacred supper for the entire family.  Three rings of braided Christmas Bread or kolach is placed in the center of the table, God's Bread, called kutia, is the most important food, made from wheat, poppy seeds and honey.  The family eats of the kutia while drinking God's Drink uzvar, which is made of 12 stewed fruits.  The patriarch of the household offers prayer for the family at the onset of the communion.  Then it's time for the Christmas Eve meal.

   The Ukrainian Christmas Eve Super meal consists of 12 courses.  Each course represents one of the 12 Apostles of Christ as well as each full moon during the year.  The supper has no red meat, just fish.  It starts with 1)kutia, the main dish of the whole supper, 2)borshch, which is a beet soup, 3)vushka, boiled dumplings filled with chopped mushrooms and onions.  The vushka is followed by a variety of fish, 4)baked fish, 5)boiled fish, 6)fried fish, 7)cold fish in aspic (like a gelatin), 8)fishballs, and 9)marinated herring.  This is followed by 10)boiled dumplings filled with cabbage, potatoes, buckwheat grains, or prunes, called varenyky.  There are also 11)holubtsi or stuffed cabbage, and lastly 12)more uzvar.

   The Ukrainian Christmas includes caroling.  Ukrainian children travel from house to house through their neighborhoods.  They ask permission before serenading every member in the household, including babies.  At least one is dressed in costume; the goat.  The bag carrier uses his bag to carry gifts.  The goat is the main character in a skit the children put on in each house.
   Since the 17th Century, students of the Aiyvan Academy have traveled from town to town to present VERTEP, the Ukrainian Puppet Theater during the Christmas celebration.  The play consits of both serious and humorous acts in which the legendary Kozak is the folk hero.

   The Ukrainian Christmas includes the Chrstmas tree, along with a legend about a family too poor to have a tree.  The mother took some fruit and nuts and placed them in the tree outside her home.  That evening, the spiders weaved webs all over the tree which turned to silver and gold when hit by light.  This was known as the spider web legend.

   If you were expecting Santa or as he is known in Europe as Saint Nicholas, during the Ukrainian Christmas you would have missed him.  The celebration of St. Nick took place three weeks earlier.  The Feast of St. Nicholas was celebrated on December 19th on the Julian calendar.  The Patron Saint of Gifts is celebrated with gift giving, fun for young children and also sleigh rides.



   Epiphany (from the Greek word meaning "appearance" or "to appear") is a Christian festival celebrated January 6th, 12 days after Christmas.  Epiphany, often called Little Christmas, commemorates the appearance of Jesus to the Wisemen of the East.
   We often use the word "epiphany" to refer to a revelation or recognition of importance in our lives.  Epiphany, in the liturgical sense, is a feast day celebrated mostly in the Catholic and Orthodox faiths.  Epiphany is the day Christians remember the visit of the Magi to the stable in Bethlehem.  In the eastern or Orthodox rites of the Church, Epiphany is also he day which we remember the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist in the Jordan river.  When John baptized Jesus, he also proclaimed Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of God.  He said, "Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world"


   There are some who suggest Epiphany was originally established in order to commemorate the appearance of the celestial phenomenon heralding the birth of the Messiah.  Still others maintain Epiphany is best remembered as the celebration of the manifestation of God's Son to the Gentile world.  Yet, this would hold with the typical understanding of Epiphany as the day to celebrate the adoration of the Magi-Gentiles all, or so it seems.
   As the Magi presented gifts to the Holy Child, many countries in southern and eastern Europe and also in areas of Latin America celebrate Epiphany, as the gift-giving holiday.  Although Epiphany is a major feast day in the Christmas season, it receives almost no recognition in many western countries.  The average American has never even heard of the feast of Epiphany.

Jesus being baptised by John the Baptist

    Early church fathers, Jerome and Chysostom recommended Epiphany as the day on which Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist and when Yahweh's (God's) voice was heard from heaven declaring, "this is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased"(Mathew 3:17).  The Greek Fathers (church leaders following the Apostles in the first and second century) understood the Epiphany as the appearance of Christ to the world in the sense that Paul intends when he says "God's purpose and grace were made manifest now through the manifestation of our Savior Jesus Christ, who indeed did abolish death, and did enlighten life and immortality through the good news" (2nd Timothy 1:10).

Peruvian Three Kings Day

    Mary and Joseph had traveled to Bethlehem for the census where of course, Jesus was born.  But according to Jewish law, they needed to wait until the eighth day after the birth of Emmanuel or Jesus.  On the eighth day, a Hebrew male child is taken to the temple and presented for circumcision and the mother has her ritual purification.  We refer to this eight day period as the Octave of Christmas and the whole of the Christmas season as Christmastide.

   During this time, the first Slaughter of the Holy Innocents (Liturgical year: December 28th) by King Herod, occurred.  Herod had heard rumors of a "new king" that was born.  He ordered all male children under two killed in an effort to rid the area of the rumored king and potential threat to his throne.  Mary and Joseph were preparing to leave, having been warned in dreams of the immanent danger.  It was then that the Wisemen arrived and located the place where Jesus was.  They encouraged Mary and Joseph to flee to Egypt for safety from Herod's soldiers.