Walldürn is a town in Baden-Württemberg, Germany, where they celebrate carnival (which is called Faschenacht in that part of Germany) with a parade on Shrove Tuesday, called . Some of the parades, which normally take place on various days on or after Shrove Tuesday in different towns, feature one or more Straw Bears – people covered from head to foot in costumes of straw – but in Walldürn, the Straw Bears come out on the Monday immediately preceding it, called Rosenmontag.
The bears have minders who lead them on long ropes, but this simply makes it possible for them to capture any attractive young girl in the street who may catch their eye: they will single her out by encircling her a few times to entangle her in the rope, then by suddenly lying down on their back, she is brought down on top of them into a compromising position!
The Walldürn bears’ costumes are made by simply lying down in a pile of straw and having it bound around the body with wire; an extremely dangerous option! (Straw bears everywhere tend to be accompanied by a minder with a fire extinguisher in these safety-conscious times.) Elsewhere, as at Whittlesey, UK, they have costumes that are attached to garments, or they may be made from bundles or twists of straw.
I visited Walldürn in 1999 as one of the musicians accompanying the Whittlesea Straw Bear, a revival of the traditional character that had died out in Whittlesey, near Peterborough, UK, in the earlier part of the 20th century. The Walldürn bears have visited Whittlesey several times in return.
It is possible that straw bears are related to such characters as Jack-in-the-green, the green man and the Castleton Garland: Sir James Frazer certainly drew parallels in The Golden Bough but modern folklore scholarship frowns on drawing any conclusions from superficial appearances.
Decorative gingerbread is a local specialty and it is often made to commemorate special occasions; we were each presented with one at a ceremony at the town hall.
The elaborate ‘Narrenbrunnen’ statue in nearby Buchen celebrates carnival and features many typical local faschenact characters, including the legendary naked ‘Blecker’ (the crouching figure in the foreground, left) whose backside must be kissed during carnival. The bears and other characters are costumes from the Faschenachtsmuseum in the Guildhall; I think that both bears’ bodies are made from pease straw, which is much coarser than wheat or barley straw. The magnificent one in the centre with the large golden head came from Stadt Osterburken; the others characters are from Buchen.