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.

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