by Sophie Parkes-Nield
The Whittlesea Straw Bear Festival has been on my ‘must-see’ list of calendar customs for years. A towering straw creature paraded through the freezing Fens in early January – what’s not to like? But for my uncle and aunt, who live in a neighbouring village, just outside Peterborough in Cambridgeshire, its presence for the last forty-odd years has barely registered. A friend-of-a-friend was involved they thought; was there some kind of parade? I enticed my uncle to join me on the morning of Saturday 18 January and we set out to find and follow the Bear.
The bright sunshine hadn’t staved off the cold and the fenlands were deserted. But, as soon as we crossed the train line and into the village of Whittlesey (or Whittlesea, in some quarters), there was the familiar tinkle of off-duty morris dancers, their kits concealed by layers, parking cars and weaving through the village centre. By ten o’clock, the marketplace was already full: of parents tired of excitable children, of course, but also by all kinds of other people: young women swaddled in faux fur and posing for selfies, a group of young men in flamingo hats already pouring pints down their necks. I started to tune into the crowds as they awaited the first appearance of the Straw Bear. Another group of twenty-something men – originally local, moved away for university and returned for the festival – were discussing the traits of Whittlesey people on the basis of the tradition before them. ‘As a biologist, I can only say that there must be something genetically different about Whittlesey people.’
The main event exceeded my expectations. The Straw Bear itself was fleeter of foot, dancing for its keeper in a much nimbler fashion than I thought possible for a human covered in and constricted by straw. Perhaps it wasn’t a human under straw at all; there really was no way of telling. As I lined up to have my photo taken with it, I couldn’t deduce which was the front or back and could barely contain my laughter. A little girl obviously felt the same as me. Waving her Straw Bear flag as excitedly as she inevitably had for Father Christmas only the previous month, she squeaked ‘It’s alive!’ when the Bear lurched towards her.
The procession following the bear was enormous. Folk dance groups made up the bulk of the performers – molly, morris, sword, clog dancers that would later give their own performances at landmark spots around the village – but also schools and other community groups proffered their own songs and tunes, choreography, banners and puppets in honour of the Straw Bear.
Though I recognised a handful of familiar faces from other events, this appeared to be a genuinely local affair, with performers and spectators from the area gathered together for a variety of reasons: to drink all day in the street with friends, to raise funds for a good cause, to entertain the kids for a few hours, or simply because that’s what’s done in Whittlesey on the Saturday after Plough Monday.
Behind me, a man asked his companion ‘Is this a traditional dance?’ We were watching molly dancers, throwing themselves around a square demarcated by traffic cones and tape. I couldn’t get a good look at them, but I imagined watery, red-rimmed eyes and tweed caps, waxed jackets. ‘I presume so,’ the other man replied in a strained voice. ‘I don’t know the first thing about it.’ And this epitomises my fascination for calendar customs. We turn out to our streets and marketplaces, our fingers turning blue in the cold, often to watch something about which we know relatively little: why it’s performed, for how long the tradition has endured. But we know how it makes us feel here and now. We like to see our neighbours, we like to feel part of something, we like the frivolity of a spectacle that suspends mundanity for a few hours. We like the silliness, the joyousness, the reverence. And when the bunting is taken down and the straw burnt, we like that it will happen again next year.