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Up Helly Aa

Posted on 24th December 2013
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Up Helly AA

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It’s cold and it’s dark and we all need a pick me up after the all too quickly forgotten excesses of Christmas and the New Year.  Well at Karnival Costumes we have the answer for anyone looking for a costume party theme in deepest of winter. Based on the Norse tradition of burning a longboat as it travels to Valhalla, the annual Up Helly Aa celebrations provide the perfect opportunity for a little organized mayhem.
The last Tuesday of January (the old Yule) sees the town of Lerwick in the Shetland Islands go more than a little mad with the burning own celebration which culminates in the burning of their Viking galley. And, as their organizing committee proudly boast; "there will be no postponement for weather".
The organisers of the event, known as the Jarl Squad and lead by their leader known as the Guizer Jarl are responsible for the entire organisation and although it only lasts one day and one night, it’s the culmination of a year’s work. The Up Helly Aa guizers create a superb spectacle which bears testament to the grit and determination in the face of anything that the weather of mid-winter may bring.
Up Helly Aa starts in the morning with an elaborately decorated ten foot long proclamation being fixed to the market cross in central Lerwick. With it’s blend of topical humour, prodding of the establishment combined with local gossip and recital of ancient rites, it gives the Guizer Jarl the freedom of the town for the day for the purpose of the celebration.
Up Helly Aa is a superb spectacle and a celebration of Shetland history which has been dubbed the northern Mardi Gras with the celebrations filling the streets. Led by the Guizer Jarl, who adopts a character from the Norse Sagas, the procession, made up of a number of fire torch carrying groups or squads, who follow a publicised route with the best viewing spots being taken early. Wearing a costume that may take two years to complete, donning a raven-winged helmet and armed with traditional axe and shield he will embark on a 24 hour marathon which will see him standing at the helm of his doomed galley as he watches over the 800 to 1,000 disguised men, no women allowed, shouldering blazing torches form a blazing procession snaking its way along the route to the site of the actual longboat burning.
The Guizer Jarl also commands an elite squad who, dressed in Viking costume, are responsible for pulling the galley on its way to the burning site and it's being sent to Valhalla is an elite squad of Vikings. Known as Jarl's Squad this group of warriors is made up of a core of the same individuals who remain for each festival with its ranks being swollen as required by invitees. An invitation to join Jarl's Squad is a great privilege and a once in a lifetime event. It takes Jarl's Squad around 30 minutes to drag the galley through the thousands of spectators to the burning site.
The basis for the Up Helly Aa celebration has evolved over 12 centuries with the torchlight procession and longboat burning echoing that of a Viking Chief cremation ritual and their religious ceremonies to mark the return of the sun following the winter solstice.
Today the celebration of Up Helly Aa retains many of these elements but they are now combined with plenty of feasting and revelry which echo the traditions of the Viking drinking halls. Nowadays revellers in fancy dress costumes party throughout the night with each of the “Halls” providing entertainment for the community.
Now not everyone can make it to the Shetlands to join in with their Up Helly Aa celebrations so why not hold your own version? We doubt you need any help in organizing the feasting and drinking and at Karnival Costumes we have a huge selection of Viking and Norse fancy dress costumes and accessories available. You could even have a go at building your own replica of a Viking galley and then set it a fire on a simple bonfire - legislation permitting, or you can bypass this step and get straight into the feasting and revelry in your own Up Helly Aa Hall.
We think that an Up Helly Aa celebration ticks all of the boxes as an original costume party theme and as its January, it’ll give you a great excuse for finishing up all of those left over bottles from the New Year’s party!
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