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 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.
The Straw Bear Festival Clip from an audio documentary about the 'Rattlebone' (Welsh / English border Morris dancing tradition) and 'Ploughjack' (the more obscure Molly dancing of Eastern England) by folk rock legend Ashley Hutchings.
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 is pulled by 21st century plough boys and is now an established part of the procession.
In 1999 the Straw Bear made friends with a German Straw Bear from Walldürn near Frankfurt, a town that celebrates its own Straw Bear Festival on the Monday before Shrove Tuesday.
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.