July 11th – The Festival of the Grass Bear

Almost all of the Buentoilliçan kings and queens came from the west of the City, or rather were from western roots, if not geographical location, claiming descendence from the Helican rather than Escotolatian ancient peoples, the two major groups which came to form the populace of Buentoille. There were a couple of occasions when an ‘eastern’ monarch came to power, however, the most prominent of which being King Lorem Yvall. The lines of inheritance were always messy, partly because the law changed several times and partly because there were about eight different families who shared the position of the official ‘royal family’ in the early days of the monarchy. The Yvall family married in to one of these royal families, but retained their own name (in the east the family name is taken from the matriarch, in the west it is the patriarch).

Regardless of how they came to be king, Yvall handled things somewhat differently to his predecessors, especially in relation to animal rights. Like most eastern Buentoillitants, King Lorem was a vegan, a fact which outraged the court, especially at large feasts and other such events. Knowing that their position was precarious to some extent, the King did not try to influence the diet of the citizenry on the whole (although there was something of a fad for vegan food within the upper-middle classes in the west, something which greatly annoyed the east who saw a rise in the cost of certain foods), and still provided meat and cheeses for the court.

Much like diet, the king did not pass laws to stop the court and others hunting and mistreating animals, as Buentoillitants of the time were wont to do. That is, with the exception of bear baiting, dancing, and general maltreatment. The King had something of a fondness for bears, for what particular reason is unknown, though there were plenty of (unfounded) rumours at the time of his monarchy that he had been raised as part of a bear cub litter. There were also plenty of political cartoons at the time lampooning the King by depicting him as a bear with a crown, eating foliage and engaging in general buffoonery. Nevertheless, the laws he passed (this being in pre-parliamentarian times) still stood, making it illegal for anyone to trap, kill or maltreat a bear.

The punishment for engaging in any such barbaric acts was first and foremost a hefty fine, but when this didn’t seem to deter bear baiters or tamers, who made their entire income from their shows of cruelty, the King amended the legislation so that ‘watsowevyre has beyn donne untwo the bare shalle be donne untwo thee.’ In the case of bear baiters, this essentially amounted to a death sentence, and a particularly gruesome one at that in which the baiters were tied to a post and torn apart by hungry dogs. In the case of those who tamed and created ‘dancing bears,’ the punishment was less extreme; they would first have their teeth and nails pulled out, as the dancing bears did to render them less dangerous, and then they would be dressed in a raiment of dry grass (supposedly to look like bear fur) and made to dance and perform buffooneries at the end of a chain. These punishments were carried out en masse in Parliament square, and were recorded in many woodcuts and paintings at the time (most of which can now be viewed at the Museum of Traditional Antiquities).

Another popular form of monarchic inheritance was deposition, and this is precisely what happened to King Lorem after three years in power. A court coup was organised by Baldreas Dunmonii, the famed king after whom the fast-growing tree is named, and Lorem was beaten to death in the throne room. Bear baiting and maltreatment was once again allowed, but it never became as popular as before, partly because most of those who knew how to capture and train bears safely had been killed, and partly because folk found it hard to erase the images of the same things happening to humans when they saw the barbaric spectacle. Dunmonii was very fond of propaganda, and he formed several acting troupes who performed scenes on the streets intended to make his predecessor appear evil and conniving. The most popular of these scenes was the ‘grass bear dance,’ where the troupe would re-enact the punishment received by those who trained and reared dancing bears, albeit sans the pulling of their teeth and nails. The re-enactment of the fate of the bear baiters was rightly deemed too dangerous to attempt.

Whilst intended as an example of the horrors of the last king’s regime, the grass bear dance was often played for laughs. This was, after all, a man dressed in a ludicrous costume of grass, prancing around for the entertainment of the audience. Over time, this part of the performance became a bookend, where the players would ask for donations, the bear-man prancing around with a bucket to collect them. Eventually, when the next monarch came to power the players moved on to more popular, traditional mumming or morality plays, eschewing the propagandist plays they had been set up to perform, yet the grass bear stuck, it being an effective method of gathering donations from the audience.

The modern Festival of the Grass Bear traces its roots to Gremsal House, a large mansion on the outskirts of the City (it would once have sat in the centre of a large country estate, but Buentoille has since spread to meet it), which now hosts a large commune. The building was originally owned by an eccentric folklorist, Jennifer Gremsal, who hosted many small festivals at her home, and collected many folklorish artefacts. Sadly, much of this has been lost due to poor storage and the unwillingness of later generations to carry on her legacy, but one thing that has survived is the Festival of the Grass Bear. At this point the Dunmonii’s troupes had largely died out, but memories of the grass bears were still alive in the minds of several elderly folks. In a characteristic mistake of Gremsal’s, the folklorist seems to have based her festival on the recollections of a single old man she met at a pub, a retired farmhand who seemed to be generally avoided by the other patrons, but who Gremsal became somewhat besotted with, as he met her internal picture of what a folk tale teller should be like.

According to the old man (who we don’t have any name for, Gremsal never wrote it down in her memoirs), the players would come around to the small farming community in which he lived once a year and perform for them, with the grass bear included, after the local priest had ‘blessed the fields’ with a local relic (presumably the hand of Saint Uthwen, which is known to have been kept in the church that stood near to Gremsal House, now burned down and disappeared). It seems that these two events just so happened to take place on the same day, because of the regular route taken by the players through the City and its environs, but Gremsal took the interviewee to mean that they were part of the same celebration, inferring that the grass bear was some sort of ancient fertility figure.

And so we reach the modern festival. Yesterday, before the storm rolled in, the grass from the large garden of Gremsal House, which is left to grow long and dry especially for the occasion, was harvested and arranged into small bundles. Today those bundles will be attached to a volunteer, who will go to the local pubs, capering and performing for donations in a bucket (which will be later spent on alcohol and food for the celebration this evening). From these pubs, the ‘bear’ gathers a following of revellers, who all together travel to the garden once again, where a large dance will be held, large circles of people holding hands and spinning around the ‘bear’. Afterwards, the dried grass will be taken off the performer (who will then be plied with beer and cake for their labours) and stacked in the centre of the garden where it is burned along with a good deal of wood. Tomorrow, the ashes from this pyre will be spread over the nearby wheat fields, in the hopes that it will ensure a good harvest in the coming weeks, but for tonight, the participants of the dance are thought to have been gifted with particular fertility, and after eating and drinking around the fire, many will retire to their homes in the hopes of conceiving.

Whilst several books have been written about the convoluted origins of the festival, none of the revellers seem to pay them any heed. It seems far more acceptable to celebrate fertility than it does to celebrate the suffering of animals, or even the corporal punishment of those who made them suffer. Sometimes ignorance can lead to happiness.

Other festivals happening today:

  • The Festival of Very Rude Gestures
  • The Umpteenth Child Festival
  • A Day to Taste the Soil