Face of harvest revelry

This reveller was part of Saturday's Whittlesea Straw Bear Festival, held in the English town of Whittlesea, in Cambridgeshire.

The three-day harvest festival, now held in the second weekend of January every year, sees locals in unique costumes and make-up enjoying music performances, story-telling sessions and dances.

While painting faces black may raise people's eyebrows, it is said the practice is linked to how poor farm workers in the 16th century would similarly conceal their faces before going begging in winter, an activity that was illegal then.

The highlight of the festival was the parade held on Saturday, the second day of the festival, when three "straw bears" - performers dressed from head to toe in straw - were led through the streets accompanied by dancers and musicians.

The custom is thought to go back centuries, though no one is sure of its exact beginnings. A report from 1882 describes a straw-donned farmer being taken around the town to entertain people.

The tradition fell into decline at the end of the 19th century, but was revived in 1980.

The modern version of the event includes Appalachian dancing from America as well as the traditional dances of the British Isles and other street performances.

The festival ended yesterday with the "Bear Burning", when the straw costumes were burned to make way for new ones next year.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 15, 2018, with the headline 'Face of harvest revelry'. Print Edition | Subscribe