The straw bear is a very old tradition in the sleepy village of Whittlesea, Cambridgeshire. On the Tuesday after Plough Monday, young farmhands would select one of their number to be the straw bear. This wasn't as much of an honour as it may seem. What happened was that great lengths of straw would be twisted and wound around the unfortunate lad's torso and limbs, covering him completely. A cone of straw would then be fastened to his shoulders to cover his head. A straw tail and a strong chain around the armpits completed his attire.
The farmhands would take to the streets with the bear and their ploughs, calling at various houses and pubs. The bear would perform dances, and it was expected that householders would contribute money, ale, or food. Any householder who refused had a deep furrow cut into his front garden by one of the farmhands' with a plough. The next day, the straw bear (with the occupant safely removed) would be burnt, so that a new bear could be created with the next harvest.
The origin of the tradition is unknown. Some people suggest a connection with the old pagan practice of sacrificing the Corn King. Whilst there certainly seem to be parallels, in the absence of documentation, any such suggestions remain speculative.
The tradition began to decline towards the end of the 19th century, and was eventually outlawed in 1908 as a form of cadging (begging troublesome enough to border on extortion). In 1980, it was revived by a special committee. As with all revival movements, the new, improved Straw Bear is quite different from its humbler cousin. The bear now wears a specially tailored removeable costume, and the person "driving" the bear is replaced halfway through the procession. The bear itself is now the centerpiece of a grand procession involving Morris dancers, musicians, and even the occasional sword dancer. The procession has been shifted to a Saturday, presumably for the benefit of the tourist trade, and special Straw Bear merchandise and even a Straw Bear Ale are on offer for visitors.
In recent years, the Whittlesea straw bear has been joined by another bear from Walldürn, a town near Frankfurt that apparently has a straw bear tradition of its own, but on the Monday before Shrove Tuesday.