The Up Helly Aa Celebration

The Jarl Squad march through the streets of Lerwick every year. Image by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

Scotland's Shetland Islands have a rich Viking heritage, and in fact were a part of Norway for some five centuries. As such, the people who live there have a culture that is a unique blend of Scandinavian and Scottish. The town of Lerwick seems to be the home of Up Helly Aa, which is a relatively modern celebration that traces its roots back to the Shetlands' Pagan origins.

According to the Shetland Library's publication, A Very Brief History of Up Helly Aa, "The significance of the name UpHelly-Aa has been variously interpreted over the years, but most commentators suggest that the expression owes its modern form to the Old Norse for weekend or holiday being the word Helly, thus Up-Helly-Aa being the end of helly or holidays."

During the Regency period and the years following the Napoleonic Wars, Lerwick was the home of many returning soldiers and sailors, most of whom were looking for a good party. It became a rowdy place, particularly during the week after Christmas, and by the 1840s, celebrations usually involved setting lots of things on fire. At some point, burning tar barrels were introduced into the fun, and this led to plenty of injury and destruction.

By the 1870s, a group of young people decided that the post-Christmas shindig would be a lot more entertaining if it were organized, and so the first Up-Helly-Aa celebration was begun. They pushed it back to the end of January and introduced a torchlight procession. A decade or so later the Viking theme emerged into Up-Helly-Aa, and the festival started to include a flaming longship each year. Although the event seems to have taken a short break during the World War II years, it resumed in 1949 and has run ever since.

The official Up Helly Aa website says, "Since 1949, when the festival resumed after the war, much has changed and much has remained the same. That year the BBC recorded a major radio programme on Up-Helly-Aa, and from that moment Up-Helly-Aa - not noted for its split-second timing before the war - became a model of efficient organisation.

The numbers participating in the festival have become much greater, and the resources required correspondingly larger."

In addition to the Viking longship, there is a lot of planning involved in the celebration, which is held on the last Tuesday of January (the next day is a public holiday, to allow for recovery time). One of the biggest parts of the festival is the costume of the Guizer Jarl, the Chief Guizer, who appears each year as a character from the Norse sagas. Thousands of spectators come to watch the festivities, and hundreds of male residents dress in Viking gear and storm through the streets.

The event today receives huge amounts of press coverage, and grows in scope and scale annually. Slate's Matthew Bremner writes, "I first heard of the Up Helly Aa from my grandfather, an ex-fisherman who used to work off the Shetland coast. He told me many tales of the islands: of barnacled, hard-drinking fishermen; hulking Nordic farmhands; and violent, evil seas. He spun yarns of the Vikings and the torchbearers known as guizers who warded off the grim darkness and the drinking that killed the cold. Most of these stories, knowing my grandfather, were either greatly exaggerated or made up, but his enthusiasm for them made me want to go and see for myself.

I wanted to see the fire and the Vikings, but more importantly I wanted to visit the islanders who had animated his tales." He goes on to describe his experience as an outside observer of the celebrations at Lerwick.

Although Up-Helly-Aa is a modern invention, it's clear that the residents of Lerwick and the rest of the Shetland Islands embrace it as a tribute to their Norse ancestry. It's got fire, food, and lots of drinking -- the perfect way for any Viking to celebrate the season. For more information on the festival, you can go to the Official Up Helly Aa Homepage.

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Wigington, Patti. "The Up Helly Aa Celebration." ThoughtCo, Oct. 4, 2016, Wigington, Patti. (2016, October 4). The Up Helly Aa Celebration. Retrieved from Wigington, Patti. "The Up Helly Aa Celebration." ThoughtCo. (accessed November 25, 2017).