Published: 18-03-2010, 08:38

Up Helly Aa

In Great Britain the long CHRISTMAS SEASON draws to a close with Up Helly Aa, a spectacular fire festival celebrated in Scotland’s Shetland Islands. In the late nineteenth century Shetlanders celebrated the festival on January 29, or “Twenty-Fourth Night” Old Style, the twenty-fourth evening after OLD CHRISTMAS DAY. In recent times, however, the festival has been scheduled for the last Tuesday in January.
This celebration has changed significantly over the past 140 years. In the mid-nineteenth century the young men of Lerwick blew horns and dragged burning barrels of tar through the streets atop sledges on various dates surrounding Christmas. After the town had admired the din and the blaze, guizers, or MUMMERS, emerged onto the streets and visited the homes of their friends. Local folklore taught that these visits brought good luck. In the 1870s the town council banned the burning of tar barrels in response to complaints from housewives that the burning tar spilled onto the streets and stuck to the boots of passersby, who eventually tracked it into their homes. The burning tar barrels also constituted a significant fire hazard. The guizers remained, however.
In the late nineteenth century a torchlit procession replaced the burning tar barrels. The procession climaxed with the burning of a replica of a Norse, or Viking, galley. The ship represented the six hundred years during which the Shetland Islands were under Norse rule. In 1899 the chief guizer, known as Guizer Jarl, posted the first Up Helly Aa “bill,” a lengthy document poking fun at local events, people, and institutions. In subsequent years, this custom became a regular feature of the festival, along with the torchlit procession, the burning of the ship, and the visits of the guizers. These days, teams of guizers visit social halls and restaurants instead of homes, and present a short skit to those assembled there. Merrymaking continues until the early hours of the morning.
What could the festival’s strange name, “Up Helly Aa,” possibly mean? Some researchers believe it came from “Uphaliday,” an old Scottish term for Twelfth Day or Epiphany. Uphaliday was the day on which the holidays were up, or over. These writers reason that Up Helly Aa means something like “up holidays all,” a fitting name for the festival that marks the end of the long Christmas season in the Shetland Islands.
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