A straw bear or Wild Man is a vaguely man-shaped animated heap of straw with a pointy head that appears in Shrovetide celebrations in the more remote Bavarian villages and rather more unexpectedly, at the modern town of Whittlesey in the Fenlands of Cambridgeshire.
In The Golden Bough, Sir James Frazer described many examples of straw effigies being made mainly around Shrovetide to represent Death or Winter, which were dressed up and paraded before being burned or destroyed by other means.
In the German town of Bad Aachen on Ash Wednesday, a man used to be encased in straw and taken to an appointed place. Here he slipped quietly out of his straw casing, which was then set aflame, the local children thinking that it was the man who was being burned.
You can’t claim rural Germans lack a sense of humour.
A very similar Shrovetide custom is still observed near Schluckenau in Bohemia. A man dressed up as a Wild Man is chased through several streets till he comes to a narrow lane across which a cord is stretched.
He stumbles over the cord and, falling to the ground, is overtaken and caught by his pursuers. The executioner runs up and stabs with his sword a bladder filled with blood which the Wild Man wears round his body; so the Wild Man dies, while a stream of blood reddens the ground.
Next day a straw man, made up to look like the Wild Man, is placed on a litter, and, accompanied by a great crowd, is taken to a pool into which it is thrown by the executioner.
To anybody from the UK who had access to a television in the 1980’s, to “Follow the bear” had a very specific meaning, and it is a story which also includes the death and resurrection of an artificial bear.
When Hofmeister beer was launched by the Scottish Courage breweries they claimed their mascot George the Bavarian Bear was from the depths of the Black Forest (although the beer itself was produced exclusively in the UK).
The first television adverts featuring the sassy pub bear in his shiny yellow jacket and pork pie hat were the final directorial works of Orson Welles, and captured the imagination of a generation.
Men wanted to be George, and women wanted to be with him, as he triumphed at snooker, darts and other pub-based activities, always surrounded by admiring onlookers.
George the Bear and Hofmeister were laid to rest in 2003, only to be triumphantly resurrected in 2015 as an award-winning craft lager – this time actually brewed in Bavaria according to their ancient Purity Laws.
The new Hofmeister is the perfect base for a long fruity cocktail.
12oz Hofmeister Lager Beer
1 shot of Kliener Feigling fig liqueur or Pavan grape liqueur
Grated zest of an orange
A dash of Maraschino Luxardo liqueur
Pour the beer gently into a tall chilled glass and add the liqueurs, stirring gently with a tall bar spoon. Dot with bitters, and garnish with grated orange zest and a STRAWberry.
The Whittlesey Straw Bear procession was abolished circa 1909 as the local authorities apparently regarded the bears parade from house to house and attendant demands for food, drink and money as a form of begging.
Resurrected in 1980 simultaneously with the birth of the Follow the Bear TV commercials, the festival has gone from strength to strength since, with all kinds of memorabilia available and the parade now a festival that lasts the whole weekend, with the burning of the Bear taking place on Sunday.
Flanked by molly, morris and clog dancers, the Bear and its Keeper make a striking spectacle as they stalk the town.
On the same weekend that I was attending the Straw Bear Festival, my friend Jane was in Brazil where she purchased for me a figure of Babalú-Ayé. A Yoruba deity associated with infectious disease and healing, he could be a twin to the Straw Bear.
I don’t believe in coincidences, and as I had recently broken an ankle and had been suffering from a heavy cold for several weeks, I think it possible that the link between these two creatures brought something to me just as I had a need for it.
In this cold, dark season of colds, ‘flu and nasty viruses going around, it is only prudent to pay tribute to Babalú-Ayé. His preferred offering is a variety of grains, although he likes to have snail shells or cowrie shells around him for decoration.
Both the Straw Bear and Babalú-Ayé need to keep moving from place to place as an expression of their essential nature. Walking between realms and planes of existence in their conical shroud of straw, they stay in perpetual motion.
My cold has gone.
Follow the bear.