Tuesday, 5 February 2008

Up Helly Aa and the Art of Enjoying Winter

Shetlanders have worked it out. What is there to look forward to in winter after Christmas and Hogmanay? Another two long months of cold and darkness, colder and darker the further north you go. There needs to be something to look forward to at the end of January and through February. The old Norse had their fire festival at the end of Yule and in an echo of this, 19th century Shetlanders decided to copy the old ritual they had lost.

The rest of the country has Burns Night - but Burns Night is no Christmas, no communal event taking great preparation. Up Helly Aa is different. At the beginning of the year a Jarl is elected - perhaps Shetland's greatest honour - and preparations begin. Lerwickers form squads, and spend a lot of time preparing themed costumes for the procession - fancy dress costumes, as ony the Jarl's squad get to dress as vikings. A longboat is built for sacrifice to the fire. Hostesses prepare their halls for the visits of the squads on the night of the procession. Finally, the great night comes. The wooden longboat is moved from its quayside location to its final resting place in Gilberston Park. The squads gather, horizontal sleet lashing their bare arms and legs. Locals and visitors line the streets to watch. The sense of anticipation is palpable. And then the torches are lit!

The procession winds its gaudy way through the streets, ending in the park. Once everyone has arrived, they throw their torches into the boat, singing in a huge circle as the boat burns. And then the party begins! Entrance to the various halls is by invite only - no tourist event, Up Helly Aa - and the visitor might see a stray drunk in viking costume staggering about Commercial Street up to a day and a half later.

Lerwick's Up Helly Aa, the biggest in Shetland, is always held on the last Tuesday of January: but Shetland's other communities hold their own celebrations, all the way up to the start of spring.

Now is that not the way to get through winter?

The Longship Burns:

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