Sunday 12 February 2012: La Fête de l'Ours, Prats de Mollo
Quan l'os sall de la cova, si el temps és clar, l'ivern és acabat: When the bear leaves its cave, if the weather is fine the winter is over. The festival of the bear in Prats de Mollo is supposed to symbolise the arrival of spring, as the bear wakes from hibernation. Oddly enough it was traditionally celebrated on 2 February -- Groundhog Day -- although it seems to be more of a movable feast now, to coincide with school holidays. And the significance of the weather is apparently the reverse of the groundhog's.
The temps was certainly clar -- but freezing. According to tradition, the three "bears" are elected and then ceremonially dressed in sheepskin, armed with big sticks, and smeared with a mixture of cooking oil and soot. They are then pursued around the town by a group of hunters armed with rifles, the bears taking every opportunity to rush into the crowd, seize onlookers and smear them liberally with soot. Especially young girls, since the mythical role of the bear was to render them fertile such that they would produce large, strong babies. So the girls make a show of screaming and running away, but really they are delighted to be caught. Finally the bears are caught and ritually shaved by a group of white-clad barbers, returning them to human form.
This goes on for hours, and from time to time soot-smeared specators pause for refreshment, which is why all the bars in town are sheathed in plastic for the occasion.
Footnote: while writing this in a local bar, I was smeared with soot by a friendly bear.
Edit: I've now posted a set on Flickr.