Welcome to Around the World! I’m Kristy, your lovely tour guide, and every month I’ll be sharing with you unusual, bizarre and just plain fun holidays and festivuses from all over the planet.

So pack your masks, tiki dolls, and protection amulets. Oh, your mom also wanted me to remind you to bring clean undies. We’re good? Excellent! Let’s board the Magic Carpet, it’s the only way to travel, and get rockin’!

Today’s trip will be especially delightful for our Viking loving Geek Girls and Gents! We’re visiting Lerwick, Shetland for the Up Helly Aa Festival! Let’s get Up Helly Aa in here!

The Up Helly Aa festival is to recognize and celebrate the influence of the Norsemen on the Shetland Islands. This is a full day event with the community all dressing up like vikings to spend the day celebrating! It’s held the last Tuesday of January every year in Lerwick. After donning the viking garb (ultimate cosplay moment) and enjoying some traditional viking coffee the Guizaer Jarl and his squad parade through the town.

The suit of armor modeled by our Jarl and his squad are designed and made each year by the Jarl. The weapons and shields are also made to match whatever design and theme the Guizar Jarl chose for that year. Preparation for these costumes and props take 2 years to design and craft. Seriously…ultimate cosplay moment!

After a rousing jaunt through the village the Jarl and his squad make their way to the Market Cross so that the Jarl may see the official Bill. The Up Helly Aa Bill was first started in 1899 with the purpose to give proclamations and placards. The tradition continues but it’s much more of a running joke these days. A local artist of the Jarl’s choosing is chosen to paint the Bill and the contents of the Bill are done by a secret committee. The whole thing is hand painted and often contains silly jokes and satirical humor regarding the town and its people. The Jarl must visit, read and sign the Bill before the festivities can continue.

So after some more marching around and some fun Norse songs we get to the best part of the whole evening. Lighting stuff on fire! This festival speaks to my inner pyro! Every year over 1,000 torches are crafted and prepped by a group known as the Torch Boys. They meet twice a week during the winter to craft the torches out of hessian sacks and concrete shoulders. The day before the festival the torches are spent soaking in fuel to ensure the best burn possible. As night falls the torches are lit and the famous Up Helly Aa torchlit procession begins. Nearly 1,000 guizers carry their torches through the town following the Galley to the burning site.

At 19:00 the Jarl Squad surrounds the the Galley and wait for all the lights in the whole town to be shut off. At 19:30 the Squad lights the Galley and a massive party breaks loose!

This festival has grown in size and popularity since starting. It’s such an important tradition to the people of Shetland that it’s only been cancelled three times and only postponed three times in its entire history!

Cancellations:

1901 for Queen Victoria’s Death
1914 to 1919 for WWI
1940 to 1948 for WWII

Postponents:

1900 for 2 weeks due to influenza
1936 for 2 weeks due to the death of George V
1965 for 1 week due to the death of Winston Churchill

Aside from those exceptions the Up Helly Aa participants and spectators attend the festival regardless of the weather conditions, Zombie Apocalypse or another Saw movie. Unfortunately in Lerwick, women are not permitted to be part of the Procession. It’s considered a politically sensitive topic in Lerwick but wanting to hold true to Norse traditions they maintain the ban on women. But women are still welcome spectators. However in various other Up Helly Aa festivals around Shetland, usually smaller and more rural areas, are more than happy to allow women to participate. Since the party and the costumes are so over the top the men often dress as women earning the festival a fun little nickname, “Transvestite Tuesday”. So at least we get some representation, right?

Well my fellow travelers, I hope you enjoyed our trip to Lerwick for the festival! I certainly had a great time taking you there. If anyone has been to this festival, please let me know! I’d love to hear more about it! If anyone is interested in more details about Up Helly Aa, you visit the official site here. And in order to cover my butt, all the images used for this piece are from the official site. They are plenty more fantastic images to be seen and you can find them all on the website.

If there’s a tradition, festival or holiday you know about and would like me to get more information on, please don’t hesitate to let me know!


Around the World is a feature about global geekery, exploring other cultures, and much more. To submit a post idea, simply leave a comment!