Up Helly Aa Fire Festival, which literally means “Up Holy (Day) All” Fire Festival, is Europe’s largest fire festival, which takes place in Lerwick, Shetland in Scotland, on the last Tuesday in January every year. It marks the end of the Yule season. The festival is held to mark the Islands’ historical links with the Vikings and in the main ceremony the model of a Viking ship is burned in the middle of the town with passionate zest and sap.
The festival also involves a series of marches and processions of about a thousand guizers (folk players disguised in costumes) in Lerwick and considerably lowers numbers in the more rural festivals. The guizers form squads and march through the town or village in a variety of themed costumes. There is a main guizer who is called the Jarl, the principal character. There is a committee which a person must be part of for fifteen years before one can be a jarl, and only one person is elected in this committee each year.
The festival, Up Helly Aa Day, starts in the evening, when more than 800 dramatically disguised men in themed costumes line up in the semi dark streets. As soon as a signal rocket bursts over the Town Hall on the stroke of 7.30pm, the torches are lit, the band strikes up and the amazingly blazing procession starts to move. The procession slowly treads half a mile astern of the Guizer Jarl, standing proudly and in imposing manner at the helm of the fateful replica of his warship, or galley. It takes considerable time for the Jarl’s squad of burly Vikings to drag him to the burning site, through a crowd of four or five thousand spectators. Like Catherine Wheel of fire, the men in disguise encircle the dragon ship in a slow motion. When another rocket explodes overhead, the Jarl leaves his ship, to a crescendo of cheers. Then a bugle call sounds, and the torches are hurled into the galley. As the disastrous fire engulfs and destroys the replica of the galley, the painstaking work of four months by the galley builders, the crowd sings a sad song, ‘The Norseman’s Home’ – a sad requiem for the hardiest Viking.
However, the vent does not end there. As the night rolls on, more than 40 squads of guizers visit a dozen halls in rotation. They’re all invited guests at what are still private parties – apart from a couple of halls where tickets are on sale to the general public. At every hall each squad performs something, which may be a comical sketch of a local event, a dance display in spectacular costume, or an enactment of a popular TV show or pop group. Every guizer has a duty (as the ‘Up Helly Aa Song’ says) to dance with at least one of the ladies in the hall, before taking yet another dram, soaked up with vast quantities of mutton soup and bannocks. The parties usually continue throughout the night and well into the following morning. Further dances and celebrations are held again on the next day, known as the Hop Night.
The first torch celebration in Up Holy All Fire Festival (Up Helly Aa Day) took place in 1881, however the first galley was introduced and burned in 1889. The current Lerwick celebration owes its origin to the early Yule tradition of tar barreling, where squads of young people used to drag barrels of burning tar through town on sledges and doing mischief. Sometimes the Special constables were called in order to curb the trigger-happy drunks firing guns in the air. However, the said tradition was abolished around 1874-1880. The modern version of the festival is much more courteous and gracious.