Helly-va good time Viking-style
“Up Helly Aa” — it’s a hardcore celebration not for the faint of heart. Throngs of men in Norse armor snake through the town with fiery torches, dragging a doomed Viking long ship to the water’s edge, its lone captain still on board. At the last moment, the captain, or “Guizer Jarl,” makes his escape and the boat is set ablaze, dragon mast and galley engulfed in flames. He waited 15 years to take that last ride, and he and his “Guizer Jarl Squad” spent months building the boat – all designed to be set adrift and go up in flames as thousands of spectators cheer.
From a land rich in the heritage of Norsemen, it’s the kind of party you would expect. The name Up Helly Aa is actually a reference to a number of similar celebrations that take place each January across the Shetland Islands, varied slightly but all filled with mischief, fire and fun for an entire 24 hours.
The biggest of the celebrations takes place in Lerwick on the last Tuesday in January, and is considered the largest fire festival in the world. Thousands flock to watch as hundreds of men in their Viking garb light up the night sky with their torches and burning boat, then all head off to find several halls around town with their hosts anxiously waiting their arrival. Dancing, eating and drinking continue long after the morning has come. And since Wednesday is a public holiday, after a few hours of rest and hangover relief the hardy party-goers are back at it again. You too can join in the spectating, dancing, gorging and reveling, with just an easy flight or ferry ride to Lerwick. Well, that’s if you can snag a much sought after event ticket.
How it all began
The event is surprisingly of more modern origins than most people would think, developing from both the Yule celebrations of old and the spirit of the feisty, “work hard, play hard” self-reliant Shetlanders. The windswept and sea-battered archipelago may be a beautifully lush, green haven for several species of birds and marine mammals, but only 15 of its 100 virtually treeless islands are inhabited. Those who settled here were accustomed to a harsher way of life, having fought and conquered others for what they wanted.
The original Norsemen were Pagan until the Scots in the 10th century introduced (well, coerced) them into Christianity. Over time, Pagan rituals and celebrations, such as Yule, blended with Christian celebrations. Yule was the celebration of the coming of winter, or Winter Solstice, and helped break up the long, cold nights by allowing for several days, even perhaps a month, of intense reveling throughout the night. The ancient celebrations were raucous events with a lot of animal sacrifices and feasts, drinking and labor-intensive feats and challenges of strength, such as dragging logs through the street, building and burning of bonfires and more. Yule later mellowed as its date changed to reflect Christmas celebrations, but those close to their Norse origins still shared in the roughhouse merriment from past generations.
According to Lerwick’s official Up Helly Aa website, a traveling missionary documented how riotous the parties were in the streets of Lerwick on Christmas Eve, 1824. Fighting, fiddle playing, drinking and firing of guns were all part of the celebration. Years later, the men began lighting up tar barrels and dragging them through the narrow streets, dangerously spilling tar and endangering others. The town banned the burning tar barrel races, but a group of men devised a new type of Yule/winter celebration that would incorporate their Viking heritage and still allow them to “play with fire” in an all-night reverie. The name was created as “Up Helly Aa,” the date of the celebration was postponed for after Christmas, and costuming, called “guising” (from “disguise”), was also incorporated. The first fire procession was in 1876, and the first galley burning was sometime in the late 1880s. The rest is indeed history.
Up Helly Aa is not just about drunkards playing with kerosene and lighters. This 24-hour celebration takes several thousand people to organize over a period of a year, and most of the planning and work is done in secret. A committee of men decide most of the preparations, down to choosing the leader for the next year’s event (the Jarl) and choosing the one person to take his place on the committee.
To become a Guizer Jarl, which is the leader of the celebration and the “ruler of mischief,” the men must be chosen and fulfill their duties on the committee for a minimum of 15 years. To be chosen as the Jarl is not only an honor, but the end of a long sacrifice of time and effort for the annual event. His Viking helmet, axe and shield have been handcrafted and passed down to him from the Jarl before him, and part of the great fun of the event is to see what apparel he will choose to wear with his armor, depicting one of the Norse Saga characters.
At 7:30 p.m., the Jarl stands proud and erect in his lovingly built long boat as his Squad drag it to the burning site. Rockets are fired, the Jarl finally abandons the ship, and the boat is set ablaze. During the burning the group of armor-clad Vikings sing a stirring Norse ballad, and then disperse for further merriment at each of the awaiting halls.
Needing a ticket?
There’s room for you, too … maybe. Want to see the world’s largest fire festival for yourself? Well, you can’t buy tickets by phone or online. An application form for Town Hall tickets will be made available at their official website, between Christmas and New Year, approximately one month before the event. The date for this year is Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2017. Tickets are by “first come, first served” basis and are in limited supply. Check their website for more details.
Don’t despair, however. If you don’t get into Lerwick, there are eight more fire festivals across Shetland during late winter. Some even allow women to join the procession as torch-bearers and guizers.
Even if you don’t make it to any of the Up Helly Aa celebrations, the Shetland Islands are rich with ecological gifts and archeological history. Also a popular spot for cruises, today’s Shetland is a beautiful vacation destination. For more information go to www.visit.shetland.org.