Wednesday, January 19, 2011


The History of Up Helly Aa

   Up Helly Aa is a relatively modern festival.  There is some evidence that people in rural Shetland celebrated the 24th day after Christmas as "Antonsmas" or "Up Helly Night", but there is no evidence that their cousins in Lerwick did the same.  The emergence of Yuletide and New Year's festivities in the town seems to post date the Napoleonic Wars, when soldiers and sailors came home with rowdy habits and a taste for firearms.

Early years

   On an old Christmas eve in 1824, a visiting Methodist missionary wrote in his diary that "the whole town was in an uproar, from 12 o'clock last night until late this night blowing of horns, beating of drums, tinkling of old tin kettles, firing of guns, shouting, bawling, fiddling, fifeing, drinking, and fighting.  This was the state of the town all the night...the street was as thronged with people as any fair I ever saw in England".
   As Lerwick grew in size the celebrations became more elaborate.  Sometime about 1840, the participants introduced burning tar barrels into the proceedings. 

  "Sometimes", as one observer wrote, "there were two tubs fastened to a great raft-like frame knocked together at the Docks, whence the combustibles were generally obtained.  Two chains were fastened to the bogie supporting the capacious tub or tar-barrel...eked to these were two strong ropes on which a motley mob, wearing masks for the most part, fastened.  A party of about a dozen were told off to stir up the molten contents". 

   The main street of Lerwick in the mid 9th century was extremely narrow, and rival groups of tarbarrelers frequently clashed in the middle.  The proceedings were thus dangerous and dirty, and Lerwick's middle classes often complained about them.  The Town Council began to appoint special constables (police) every Christmas to control the revellers, with only limited success.  When the end came for tar-barrelling, in the early 1870's, it seems to have been because the young Lerwegians themselves had decided it was time for a change.

   Around 1870, a group of young men in the town with intellectual interests injected a series of new ideas into the proceedings.  First, they improvised the name Up Helly Aa, and gradually postponed the celebrations until the end of January.  Secondly, they introduced a far more elaborated element of disguise- "guizing"-into the new festival.
Thirdly, they inaugurated a torchlight procession.  At the same time they were toying with the idea of introducing Viking themes to their new festival.  The first signs of this new development appeared in 1877, but it was not until the late 1880's that a Viking long ship-the "galley"- appeared, and as late as 1906 that a "Guizer Jarl", the chief guizer, arrived on the scene.  It was not until after the World War I that there was a squad of Vikings, the "Guizer Jarl's Squad", in the procession every year.

   Up to World War II, Up Helly Aa was overwhelmingly a festival of young working class men...women have never taken part in the procession.  During the depression years the operations was run on a shoestring.  In the winter of 1931-32, there was an unsuccessful move to cancel the festival because of the dire economic situation in the town.  At the same time, the Up Helly Aa committee became a self-confident organization which poked fun at the pompous in the by then long established Up Helly Aa "bill"-sometimes driving their victims to fury.

   In the early days orders had to be conveyed by means of placards or proclamations at the Market Cross.  This meant that the Guizers had to go there to find out where and when the festival would take place it was not always held on the last Tuesday of January as is the case today.
   The first "Bill as we known it was produced in 1899, its primary purpose still being the conveyance of constructions.  However, it was soon to be elaborated on by the addition of local jokes, satire, etc. and the bill head, painted each year by a local artist chosen by the Jarl.  The painting usually depicts a scene from the Jarl's saga.

    The contents of the "Bill" are produced in secret by a committee, the lettering being hand painted on the board the day before and finally the Jarl gives his seal of approval by signing the "Bill" that same evening.
    At 6 in the morning of Up Helly Aa Day, the "Bill" is erected at the Market Cross for the public to read and is removed before the procession at night.

   There is a lot of anticipation as to who is going to be featured each year and in general everything is taken in good humor.
   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 program 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 organization.  The numbers participating in the festival have become much greater, and the resources required correspondingly larger.

   Whereas in the 19th century, individuals kept an open house to welcome the guizers on Up Helly Aa night, men and women now cooperated to open large halls throughout the town to entertain them.  However, despite the changes, there are numerous threads connecting the Up Helly Aa of today with its predecessors 150 years ago.  The festival takes place the last Tuesday in January every year in Lerwik, Shetland.  Today the festival consists of a series of marches and visitations, culminating in a torch lit procession and Galley (a Viking ship) burning. Then there follows hours of performing acts in dancing halls, throughout the evening and early morning.  The following Wednesday is a public holiday so everyone can recover from the festivities.
    Up Helly Aa is a community event, with countless volunteers contributing many ours each winter towards organizing and planning the following year's festival.
  The Guizer Jarl (Leader of the squad) and his squad begin their preparations in February, and many long hours of hard work go into the design and productions of their outfits.

   The Up Helly Aa Committee begin their year preparing the Up Helly Aa Exhibition that runs from May until September in the Galley Shed.  This boasts a full size Galley, Jarl Squad suits, other Squads memorabilia and an extensive collection of photographs recording the suits worn and the guizers involved.
   In early September the Guizers of the remaining 45 squads begin their squad meetings and preparations.  This involves determining the character or characters that they wish to rotary with their suits, making the suits while also creating and practicing their act to perform in the halls they visit throughout the evening.
   At the end of September the Galley shed is transformed back into a working shed where the Galley and the torches are constructed during the winter.  During this same period the Committee checks the progress of the preparations including the Collecting Sheet and Bill.


   The Festival of Masquerade Games is the most important cultural event in the region.  More than 5000 performers from all over Bulgaria, as well as groups from many European countries take part in the festival.  It the most vital and deep rooted tradition of masquerading rites dating back to 1965.  The festival has been held in Pernik since 1966.  It is held on the last weekend of January.
   In ancient times the old Thracians held the Kukeri Ritual Games in honor of the god Dionysus-the especially known as a god of wine and ecstasy.  Even today the games are also known as the Dionysus' games.  Among the Kukeri dancers' are many different character, including Dionysus and his satyrs as well as other from deep history such as the tsar, harachari, plyuvakachi, startzi, and pesyatzi.

   People from Europe, Asia and Africa as well as representatives from every folklore region in Bulgaria, all come to Pernik to celebrate.  They come for the thrill of competitions and the pride of representing the traditions of their ancestors.  They also come to have fun.
   The masked participants are call kukeri, kokove, surakari, startsi, babugeri, dzhamailan, kamilari, etc.  They dress in fur hides or in traditional women's costumes.  They will dance in many fancy dresses and costumes.

   The performance of the masked men, commonly known as Survakari or Kukeri.  Wearing unique costumes and magnificent masks, they move around in their characteristic stride filling the air with the sound of hundreds of bells, with songs, prayers and wishes.
   During the international  festival, Bulgarian and foreign folk groups march in a procession through Pernik, displaying exuberant costumes and fantastic masks to constant ringing of bells and rattles.  They are performing the ancient rite of chasing away evil and celebrating the triumph of life being reborn, with the beginning of spring and the hopes of man and for a better harvest and a better life.

   In Bulgarian folklore, the mask is believed to protect its wearer against powers of impure nature.  This is the most probable explanation as to why the masks look like fearful creatures with huge jaws and very large teeth, with horns and tails, snapping beaks and grisly bodies.  The sound of the bells hanging from the belts of the participants enhances their effect.  Participants from some regions use charcoal to paint their faces black and sheep's wool to make moustaches and beards.  The groups consists of various different characters.  Traditionally all parts are played by men dressed in carnival costumes.  They may carry symbolic objects with which they perform their rituals.  Bulgarian ceremonial masks are a valuable source of information for the various regions in Bulgaria. 


   All masks are made by the individual who will be wearing it, with the help of craftsmen known throughout the village for their skill.  It is a long and complicated process.  Even the making of the masks and costumes is shrouded in mystery, it's almost a ritual in its own right. 
   Pernik is the only place where you can see masks from every region of Bulgaria.  Visitors to the carnival say the feel invigorated after going and watching to this festival.