Thursday, January 31, 2008


This is two days late, but I have to take note of the annual celebration of Up-Helly-Aa on Tuesday.

Up-Helly-Aa, a relatively modern festival, is celebrated in Shetland on the last Tuesday in January. The festivities include a torch-lit procession of as many as a thousand men in costume (called "guizers") through the town of Lerwick. The formal celebration culminates with the ceremonial burning of a full-size replica Viking longship. Afterwards both participants and onlookers head for the local pubs and halls for a night of feasting and merriment.

There is evidence that rural folk in Shetland celebrated the 24th day after Christmas as "Antonsmas" or "Up Helly Night"; however, the practice of Yuletide and New Year celebrations in town seems to have started after the post-Napoleonic Wars (maybe influenced by the newly-acquired rowdy habits of the soldiers and sailors who came home). As the town of Lerwick grew, the celebrations grew larger and grander. By the mid-1800s, participants had added burning tar barrels to their festivities. Since the streets of Lerwick were very narrow back then, rival gangs of tar-barrelers often got into fights in the middle, to the annoyance of the more staid citizens.

Around 1870, more intellectual participants gave the holiday its name, Up-Helly-Aa, and gradually moved it to the end of January. They also added the idea of elaborate disguises, called "guizing" and started the torchlit procession. At the same time, they experimented with using Viking themes in the festival, and by the 1880s a Viking longship, called the "galley", had appeared. By 1906, the idea of a chief guizer, called "Guizer Jarl, "had been introduced, and after World War I there was a squad of Vikings in the procession.

Up-Helly-Aa was originally a festival for young working-class men, and during the Depression it was nearly cancelled for lack of funds. After World War II, when the festival resumed in 1949, many changes had been made. Media coverage by the BBC made it better known, and it gradually became larger, more efficient, and better funded. But it still retains its early roots as one of the biggest fire festivals left in Europe.

Friday, January 25, 2008


Þorri is one of the old Icelandic months, which always begins on a Friday, between the 19th and the 25th of January, and ends on a Saturday between the 18th and 24th of February. The first day of Þorri is called Bóndadagur ("Husband's Day/Farmer's Day"), and is dedicated to men (formerly only farmers). On that day, the women bring the men breakfast in bed on this day, and sometimes give their husbands flowers as well.

The tradition of a feast during Þorri has its roots the old midwinter feast, Þorrablót. This month falls during the coldest part of winter, and thus Þorri is seen as an tall old man, the personification of Winter. It has also been suggested that this month is named after a legendary Norwegian king; the name is also sometimes (incorrectly) said to be derived from the name of the Norse god Thor. The feast today has become a traditional part of the Icelandic calendar, a time when Icelanders celebrate their national heritage and eat traditional foods. Since the feast takes place in winter, most of those foods are preserved by pickling, salting, smoking, drying, or putrefying (yes, that's right, rotting!)

The Þorrablót can take place at any time during Þorri, preferably on a weekend to allow for sufficient feasting and carousing. The chief elements are lots of food and fun, and sometimes entertainment, dancing, and lots of booze. Typical foods for a Þorri feast begins with traditional appetizers of shark meat which has been prepared by being buried for several weeks or dried fish which has been beaten to soften it (yum!), both of which are best washed down by a shot of cold Brennivín (caraway schnapps), locally known as Svartidauði ("Black Death"). It has been said that a shot or two of this liquor will make anything taste okay. For those modern folk too weak for tradition, there might also be pickled herring or smoked salmon. The main courses are usually made from lamb or mutton and are divided into two main categories: sour (i.e., pickled in whey) and not-sour.

I've heard there is a group called the League Against Spoiled Food, which works to end the eating of whey-pickled food. They're lucky they weren't born in Iceland a few centuries ago, when that sort of thing would have been all they would have had to eat in winter-time.

As for me, a shot of aquavit and some pickled herring seems a good way to celebrate the start of Þorri (though down here in Texas, the winter is the good weather).

First message

"Hush-a-by lady, in Alice's lap!
Till the feast's ready, we've time for a nap:
When the feast's over, we'll go to the ball --
Red Queen, and White Queen, and Alice, and all!"

Hello, I've started this blog as part of a class exercise.

I'm a librarian at a research university in Texas with a background in theatre. Right now I'm involved in a campus production of Shakespeare's Richard III, playing the half-crazed, embittered, and vindictive Queen Margaret. During a rehearsal break, I created this lolcat to symbolize my take on this character:

Mad Margaret