The bear festivals that are still celebrated in five Pyrenean towns in France and Andorra have been inscribed on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, managed by UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Culture), according to the resolution adopted at the 17th meeting of the committee in charge of this catalog of cultural values, which is held from November 28 to December 4 in Rabat (Morocco).
The traditional festivals recognized by Unesco are celebrated annually in Encamp, Ordino, Arles-sur-Tech (Arles), Prats-de-Mollo-la-Preste (Molló and la Presta meadows) and Saint-Laurent-de-Cerdans ( Sant Llorenç de Cerdans).
In Andorra, these popular celebrations are known, in Catalan, as Les festes de l'Ossa (Las fiestas de la osa), with the local names El ball de l'Ossa d'Encamp and L'ultima Ossa d'Ordino. In France, they receive local names, also in Catalan, such as El Dia dels Ossos or Feast of the Bones of Prats de Molló, Feast of the Bones of Arles and Feast of the Bones of Sant Llorenç de Cerdans.
The popular festivities with reference to bears had been celebrated for centuries in dozens of towns in the Pyrenees but are currently only held in the five towns now recognized by Unesco.
The Committee for Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity recalls in the text of its resolution that "although the style varies from one town to another, the setting remains the same and symbolizes the end of winter, the rebirth of spring (with the bear waking up from hibernation) and the relationship between man and nature".
"Following a decline in popularity in the 1960s, the parties have experienced a resurgence in the last thirty years. People of all ages and backgrounds participate to varying degrees, helping to organize, acting, singing or taking part in the chases." , indicates Unesco on its website.
The Bear Festival is transmitted through associations and schools, as well as in family and friendship circles. Children also “play bear” spontaneously. This ancestral event, which brings together thousands of people from the Catalan region, is an opportunity for the population of the five Pyrenean towns to celebrate their common heritage and affirm their belonging to the community, Unesco points out.
The representations of the bear in the country have a historical significance and cultural values that have deserved their recognition and their inclusion in the General Inventory of Cultural Heritage. From an ethnohistoric perspective, the popular representations of the bear are part of the traditional festive imagery of Andorrans. They are very vivid popular celebrations, although it is true that their origin is unknown.
As Unesco indicates, there are currently two popular celebrations that have the character of a bear as the protagonist: The dance of the Bear of Encamp and The last bear of Ordino. Both representations share many traits and values. Their protagonist is a bear and they recreate an agricultural setting, in which a series of characters from rural life appear: married women, servants, hunters and gentlemen. Criticism and mockery are the common thread of the farce and, after killing the animal, all the characters, including the bear, dance together. They are popular and amateur representations that seek the complicity of the townspeople who gather to enjoy and participate in the farces.
With a marked local accent, it is the people of each town who organize and perform the burlesque farces. On the other hand, the celebrations have elements of specificity, as is evident in the account of each performance. That is to say, that despite having significant similarities, they also have singular elements. The truth is that both are perceived as part of the tradition, although the history of each festival allows us to identify discontinuities, changing aspects and new meanings.
The current parties have evolved and now show the desire for coexistence between humans and bears. "In fact, it is their ability to adapt to social and cultural changes that allows them to stay alive and become a central celebration for peoples and communities," indicates the note released by Unesco.