A Happy Up Helly Aa

Death to the Old Year

We enjoyed tucking into haggis on Burns night yesterday and tonight we burn ships. Best wishes to all those attending the Up Helly Aa (and here) today. Geographical inertia, as ever, prevents me from travelling up to witness the spectacle first hand, much as I'd like to. Of the many annual customs around the British Isles, this is surely one of the most dramatic. The Up Helly Aa — meaning roughly end of year celebration in old Norse — is a winter fire festival (and party) held in the Shetlands to mark the end of the Yule period. A series of torch-lit processions are made. The main one wends through Lerwick, which culminates in the burning of a Viking longship to signify the death of the old year and rebirth of the new year.

The longship is circled by guizers or mummers (people dressed as characters from Norse mythology) who then hurl their torches into the ship to set it ablaze. The guizers perform folk plays at locations and halls through the night.

'Every guizer has a duty to dance with at least one of the ladies in the hall, before taking yet another dram, soaked up with vast quantities of mutton soup and bannocks.'

No wonder they call it the Northern Mardi Gras. Skál!


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