Centuries ago, people in what is now northeastern Romania donned bear skins and danced to fend off evil spirits. That custom is today known as the Dancing Bears Festival, drawing crowds of tourists every December.
Hundreds of people of all ages, clad in bear costumes, dance every year around Christmas to the deafening beat of drums and roam villages and towns. The highlight of this year’s festival was on Saturday, with bear-clad dancers descending on the town of Comanesti in eastern Romania for the finale.
Visitors come from as far as Japan to see the spectacle, featuring lines of people in costumes with gaping bear jaws and claws marching and dancing. Giant red pompom decorations are usually added to the furs. Some of the “bears” jokingly growl or pretend to attack the spectators.
Locals say the custom dates back to the pre-Christianity era when people believed that wild animals staved off misfortune or danger. Dancing “bears” visited people’s homes and knocked on their doors to wish them good luck and a Happy New Year.
“The bear runs through our veins, it is the spirit animal for those in our area,” said Costel Dascalu, who started taking part in the festival when he was eight. At the time, Romania was still under communist rule and the festival was relatively low-key.
“I want to keep the tradition alive,” the 46-year-old added. When the holiday season approaches, he joked, “our breath smells like bears, and we get goosebumps when we hear the sound of drums”.
Residents are happy the tradition has lived on after many Romanians left the region in the 1990s to look for better jobs in Western Europe.
Brown bears are widely present in Romania’s traditions and culture, and the animals can often be seen by mountain roads and in forests. Excessive bear hunting prompted the authorities to issue a ban in 2016.
Participants in the festival say most of the bear skins they use as costumes have been preserved for generations and treated with great care.
Wearing a full-sized bear fur is not easy: including the head and claws, the costume could weigh up to 50kg (110 pounds). The most expensive bear skins can cost some 2,000 euros ($2,200), according to local media.