Advertisement

Culture For Members

What you need to know about the French bear festival recognised by Unesco

Genevieve Mansfield
Genevieve Mansfield - [email protected]
What you need to know about the French bear festival recognised by Unesco
A man dressed in a bear costume addresses the crowd during the "Fete de l'ours" (Festival of the Bear) in 2017. (Photo by RAYMOND ROIG / AFP)

The Fête de l'Ours, celebrated in parts of southern France, has been added to UNESCO's world heritage list - here is what you need to know about this quirky festival involving Frenchmen in bear skins chasing young women.

Advertisement

Baguettes are not the only French cultural phenomenon to have been added to the UNESCO "intangible world heritage" list this week.

The Fête de l'Ours - or the Bear Festival - which takes place in the Pyrenees, along the border with Spain, also made the cut. Stretching all the way back to the Middle Ages, the festival has some surprising components.

Advertisement

The tradition involves a man dressing up as a bear and chasing humans. At the end of the festival, the humans catch the man in the bear costume, and 'skin' him (take off his bear costume) so he can "become human again," Patrick Luis, the organiser of the festival in Prats-de-Mollo-la-Preste, told Franceinfo.  

READ MORE: The decades-old battle between French farmers and conservationists over bears

It is a celebration of the end of winter, and while it was celebrated in all villages in the region up to the 19th century, it still occurs in three villages in the Haut Vallespir, located in the Pyrenees-Orientales département.

The application for UNESCO heritage status was made alongside Andorra, where two other Bear Festivals still happen each year. There is a slight difference though - the Andorran festivals celebrate female bears specifically.

Over the years, people living in this part of France have continued the tradition, even during times of war. The festival always takes place in February, and each year about 10,000 people participate.

Meant to symbolise the rebirth of spring, the festival has some interesting facets.

READ MORE: OPINION: 24 years after I first reported on wolves in France, they are at my door in Normandy

Robert Bosch, a specialist in the Bear Festivals, told Ouest France that the "bear man comes out of the wilderness to replenish the village." In order to do this, the idea was that the man in bear costume would impregnate the young women of the village, and once that function has been accomplished, he is "stripped of his wild attributes and allowed to become human again."

Advertisement

Requesting UNESCO status

Over ten years ago, several local elected officials in the Pyrenees came up with the idea of trying to get the festival recognised status. First, they managed to register the festivals in the Inventory of Intangible Cultural Heritage in France, in 2014.

Eight years later, they finally achieved the crowning moment for their region - being listed in the UNESCO "intangible world heritage list."

For the inhabitants of the three French villages, UNESCO recognising their festival has given "a boost of life" and "a boost of importance," one village resident told Franceinfo

More

Comments

Join the conversation in our comments section below. Share your own views and experience and if you have a question or suggestion for our journalists then email us at [email protected].
Please keep comments civil, constructive and on topic – and make sure to read our terms of use before getting involved.

Please log in to leave a comment.

See Also