The Up Helly Aa Tradition
It's dark, it's cold and it's utterly miserable. Due to the days of strong gales and rough seas our shops haven't seen fruit and vegetables for days (I keep checking myself in the mirror for signs of impending scurvy) and I am starting to hallucinate about salad. I have forgotten the feeling of air on my skin, so wrapped up in wool and waterproofs have I been for what seems like an eternity now...
For these reasons, I am delighted that Up Helly Aa is here and that winter's stranglehold can only weaken.
For the northerly town of Lerwick glows on the last Tuesday of the month – even on the darkest, coldest January day.
Today, Shetlanders celebrate the highlight of their year: Up Helly aa: the largest fire festival in Europe. The festivities last a day, but the event takes a whole year of careful planning.
On the night of Up Helly Aa, a torch lit procession circles the streets of Lerwick. Whether the town is buffeted by gale force winds or lashed by horizontal rain the show must (and always does) go on. Flaming torches are carried by squads consisting of groups of men in fancy dress (guisers). The most important squad in the procession is the Jarl Squad, consisting of a group of men who are heavily bearded and dressed in Viking finery. The main man in this squad is the Guiser Jarl. Having waited at least fifteen years for this honour, Up Helly Aa is the proudest day in any Jarl’s life. You can read my interview with this year’s Jarl here.
The highlight of the night is the ceremonial burning of a lovingly built and hand painted Viking galley boat which is gradually consumed by the flames of the hundreds of torches which are thrown on it by the town’s guisers. In this way, we bid farewell to winter, hopeful that his dark and icy power is now on the wane.
So why blog about Up Helly Aa? Well this blog post has come about as request from fellow blogger, Clive Elsmore who suggested that the festival might make for an interesting lesson.
If you think your learners would be interested in finding out more about the festival, the following short video clips are a good introduction.
This is a slightly longer documentary on the subject of Up Helly Aa. It is from 1998, but I think it is fair to say that nothing (apart from women's fashion) has changed all that much!
Ways to explore Up Helly Aa in class
Show learners one of the short films and ask them to predict where the action is taking place.
- Ask learners to google the words “Shetland”,”Lerwick” and “Up Helly Aa”. Working in groups, they should present five key facts about each. Round off their presentations by showing the class an extract from the longer documentary video above (but be aware that this contains quite a bit of heavy drinking and possibly inappropriate horseplay) and discuss
- Why do you think this festival is so important to Shetlanders?
- Do you think it looks interesting?
- Why do you think that only men are allowed to take part in the squads (while women group together in public halls and make the tea)? Is this an interesting tradition or blatant sexism? (For my own take on this, you can read the article I recently had published in The Shetland times here.)
Farewell to winter around the world
Of course, people around the world are glad to see the back of winter. Perhaps you and your learners have similar festivals in your own countries. Here are some of my favourites:
You can find out about some more UK winter festivals here. I do like the sound of the Straw Bear festival. There is also the wonderful Busojaras festival in Mohacs, Hungary and the Japanese festival of Setsebun.
In a multi lingual class, ask learners to tell each other about winter festivals they have experienced. Alternatively, you could ask learners to work together to design their very own winter festival. What would happen? What would happen to symbolise the death of winter?
Writing Seasonal Poems
A discussion on Up Helly Aa and other winter festivals could lead onto a tried and tested creative writing activity: writing seasonal poems. Divide your class into two groups: winter and spring. Ask your learners to imagine their chosen season as a person, and ask them questions about it, e.g.:
- What does s/he look like?
- What clothes does s/he wear?
- What colour is s/he?
- What music does s/he like?
- What does s/he eat?
- Where does s/he shop?
- What makes s/he happy?
Learners then form their answers into a simple poem, where each line begins with the name of their favourite season, e.g.:
Spring is round faced and rosy pink
Spring wears a moss green cardie and stout wellies,
She is jade, lilac, and blossom pink
Happy Up Helly Aa day to one and all: let us hope that spring is on her way!