Up Helly Aa

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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.

Further Reading

Edwards, Gillian. Hogmanay and Tiffany, The Names of Feasts and Fasts. London, England: Geoffrey Bles, 1970. Hole, Christina. British Folk Customs. London, England: Hutchinson and Company, 1976. MacDonald, Margaret Read, ed. The Folklore of World Holidays. Detroit, Mich.: Gale Research, 1992.
Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2003

Up Helly Aa

Type of Holiday: Folkloric
Date of Observation: January 24
Where Celebrated: Lerwick, Shetland Islands, Scotland
Symbols and Customs: Guizer Jarl, Guizers, Torchlit Procession, Up Helly Aa Bill, Viking Ship


In the nineteenth century, the people of Lerwick, a town in Scotland's Shetland Islands, devised a holiday that closed the CHRISTMAS season with a bang. They dressed in costumes and marched through the streets with torches, singing songs and blowing horns. Up Helly Aa has continued to develop throughout the years and now features the burning of a replica of a Viking ship. This festival provides the people of the Shetland Islands with an opportunity for humorous, costumed revelry and all-night partying. This unusual celebration has gained fame in Scotland and throughout the United Kingdom.

Some researchers believe that the name "Up Helly Aa" comes from "Uphaliday," an old Scottish term for EPIPHANY. Epiphany marked the end of the midwinter revelries centered on CHRISTMAS and NEW YEAR'S EVE. Thus it was called Uphaliday, which historians suggest means something like "up holidays all." In its early years, Up Helly Aa was celebrated on various dates in January. By the late nineteenth century, the people of Lerwick settled on January 24 as the date for this festival. The first Up Helly Aa celebrations took place around the mid-nineteenth century. In those days, the young men of Lerwick placed tar barrels atop sledges, set them on fire, and dragged them through the streets. They blew horns in order to add noise to the smoke and flames. After the flames died down, mummers, or GUIZERS , roamed the streets and paid visits to friends and family. They wore costumes and masks or make-up to disguise their identities, which allowed them to play pranks on people they knew or act out humorous little skits.

In the late nineteenth century, concerns about fire safety and messy molten tar prompted the replacement of the tar barrels with a TORCHLIT PROCESSION of local men dressed as Vikings. Recent research has suggested several intellectually oriented young men who began to participate in the festival around 1870 first introduced the Viking theme. They were also responsible for moving the festival to its current date, introducing the ship burning custom, and encouraging more elaborate guizing practices.

In the 1880s the first ship-which some say was actually an old rowboat-was burned at the climax of the procession. This symbol of a VIKING SHIP was meant to represent the 100-year period in history, which occurred about 1,000 years ago, when the Shetland Islands were under Norse rule. This ship-burning custom caught on and has served as the highlight of the festival ever since. In 1899, the head guizer, called GUIZER JARL , created the first UP HELLY AA BILL . This document, which is read aloud and then posted, makes fun of local events and people. This custom also became a hit and is a much-anticipated feature of the festival for the people of Lerwick. These days the festival is organized by a committee that works throughout the year to organize the event. Nearly 1,000 guizers take part each year, and around 5,000 people line the streets of Lerwick in order to view the spectacle.

After the procession and the burning of the boat, festival-goers attend large parties in social halls or restaurants. There are eleven of these large-scale events in Lerwick, and each squad of guizers is expected to make an appearance at each of the eleven parties. These parties last until daybreak. Many are private, but there are a few that can be attended by anyone who purchases a ticket.


Guizer Jarl

The Guizer Jarl is the head of the Viking squad. As this is the most important role in the festival, it comes with special privileges. The Guizer Jarl chooses a character from Viking history to impersonate during his twenty-four-hour reign over the festival. Care is taken to devise an impressive and appropriate costume with which to impersonate this character. With his disguise in place, the Guizer Jarl kicks off the day's festivities with the reading and posting of the UP HELLY AA B ILL . He also rides in the V IKING SHIP during the TORCHLIT PROCESSION , which is pulled through the streets by his Viking squad. Finally, he presides over the parties he attends after the ship is burnt.


Guizing, or mumming, is an old midwinter custom in the British Isles. It involves dressing up in homemade costumes and parading through the streets. Guizers often pull pranks on neighbors and friends or go door-to-door performing short skits. In return, householders would usually give them something to eat or drink.

Up Helly Aa guizing began in just this way. In the twentieth century, as the festival grew more organized, rules sprang up to govern the guizing practices. About 1,000 guizers are divided into forty-nine squads, each of which takes on a theme. For example, the guizers that lead the torchlit march to the VIKING SHIP are all men dressed as Vikings. They wear helmets, carry shields, and are required to grow beards for the occasion. Other squads adopt different themes, taking their inspiration from politicians, celebrities, and many other sources. In recent years, junior squads, composed solely of young people, have also marched in the procession. After the burning of the ship there is one more duty to attend to. Each squad of guizers is required to perform a skit or an act at every party that the squad attends.

Torchlit Procession

The torchlit procession begins in the early evening. The guizers assemble in squads and parade through the streets of town, carrying torches and singing songs. The procession ends at the harbor, where the torches are thrown onto the V IKING SHIP , setting it ablaze.

Up Helly Aa Bill

The Up Helly Aa bill is a one or two-page proclamation that satirizes local personalities and events. The G UIZER J ARL signs and posts the bill at the kickoff of the festival. The people of Lerwick enjoy this custom and take the jibes contained in the bill in a spirit of good humor.

Viking Ship

In recent decades, the members of the Viking squad have dedicated themselves to creating beautiful replicas of a small Viking ship. The men will begin this work about four months before the festival. The ship is designed so that it may be dragged through the city streets like a parade float. In the dark of the early evening G UIZER J ARL steps into the replica of the Viking longboat that his squad has labored so many months to build. The men drag it through the city streets at the heart of the TORCHLIT PROCESSION . When the procession reaches the harbor, Guizer Jarl at last leaves the Viking ship. A volley of torches soon sets it ablaze to the delight of thousands of onlookers.


Gulevich, Tanya. Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations. 2nd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2003. MacDonald, Margaret Read. The Folklore of World Holidays. Detroit: Gale Research, 1992.


Folk Radio UK www.folkradio.co.uk/content/view/175/56

Shetland Tourism www.shetlandtourism.com/pages/up_helly_aa.htm

Up-helly-aa.org, the Shetland Times, Ltd. www.up-helly-aa.org.uk

Visit Shetland www.visitshetland.com/events/up-helly-aa-event
Holiday Symbols and Customs, 4th ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2009
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