Up Helly Aa (Up Holy Day)

by Ming Sandford, 20, Shetland Islands

Ming at her first Up Helly Aa

For our third Holidays All World Round Post, we’ll voyage to the Shetland Islands, an isolated archipelago amid the tepid waters of the North Sea. Yes, this is the breeding ground for Shetland Terrier sheepdogs, but also the birthplace of something larger: Up Helly Aa, or Up Holy Day. Exploring her Asian-Scottish experience through the lense of holiday history and customs, Ming Sandford reevaluates her own connectivity with the Shetland Islands.

Every year, on the last Friday of February typically with sharp northerly wind and rain, twenty or so children trek along the single-track road of Cullivoe, bundled up in winter jackets, proudly holding their own handmade viking shields. A couple of teachers running around keeping the line orderly and chasing after any shield escaping in the wind. Rosy cheeks and bright smiles, they sing the old Norse ‘Up Helly Aa song’ on repeat until they reach the local bus garage where at long last the galley boat is revealed. This is how my Up Helly Aa day started for all my seven years of primary school.

The name Up Helly Aa (Up Holy Day) refers to the twelve fire festivals that are celebrated around Shetland to mark the end of the holiday season. One of these festivals takes place in the village I grew up in called Cullivoe located on an island of Shetland called Yell. Up Helly Aa consists of a viking squad, a galley, guizers and burning torches. Every year one man within the community is elected as the Jarl (the head viking). It is an honour to be the Jarl and a lot of time and money is spent in preparation of the squad’s costumes (commonly made from seal skins and feathers) along with their galley. The galley is built in secret and designed to the preferences of the Jarl but always has the signature dragons head proudly at the forefront. The Chinese dragon boat festival is comparable to this. However, unlike the Chinese dragon design which has been handed down for thousands of years. The Up Helly Aa version is more cartoonish and may have been inspired by the Chinese dragon more than the actual traditional Nordic viking ship.

Modern Chinese Dragon boat

Once we reached the garage, one by one, each of us would be lifted up into the brightly painted galley boat, chattering to each other and waving at our parents taking photos. We would ride on the galley back to school whereupon the viking squad and community were welcomed in for tea, coffee and fancies. The Jarl squad would also go around the elderly people’s houses to bring the celebration to them and take photos. The respect for old folk here is similar to that of the Chinese culture. The village atmosphere would always be buzzing with excitement for the long night of festivities ahead.

Cullivoe Up Helly Aa
School day celebrations in Cullivoe

The main event of Up Helly Aa begins with the torchlit procession. The guizers are people from all over Yell who participate in squads and perform comedic sketches to the Jarl squad and community at the local hall. The guizers each carry a lit torch and march behind the galley and Vikings toward the marina. Singing, chanting and cheering is echoed into the black night sky lit up by the burning torches. The galley is set free into the water and in turn the guizers throw their torch into the galley where it burns. I would be watching from the top of the road with my classmates at this impressive sight and it was always my favourite part of the day. The air would smell fresh and smoky and you would feel the huge heat of the torches as they would pass.

Lerwick Up Helly Aa | Shetland.org
An extrapolation of Ming’s view from the top of the hill, in the Lerwick Up Helly Aa galley-torching ceremony.
Scalloway Fire Festival
Smaller Shetland islands––such as Cullivoe––produce smaller scale galley-torching ceremonies such as the one above.

After the procession we would be whisked back to the school where preparations for our own children’s squad would begin. For a couple months beforehand, we would practise our own short performance usually based on aspects of the Jarls life. Our squad was simple and feel-good but was always a favourite. To give some idea of the kind of things our squad was about here is a list of some of my characters throughout the years. I’ve been Minnie Mouse, a sailor, Trixie from Lazy Town and a circus performer just to name a few! The guizers squads are made up of groups of families and friends with old and young people alike, each performing their own dances, sketches and satirical skits. Usually wearing masks portraying different members of the community with many inside jokes in very broad Shetland dialect would leave the tourists in the audience very confused. These acts would last long into the early hours of the morning but as soon as they were over the band would appear and the dance would begin. Supper would be served at 2 am with plenty of cold reestit mutton, lentil soup, bannocks, fancies and tea. After that more dancing and music until the last people standing may only leave the hall at 6-8 am. This endless night of celebrating is often fueled by lots and lots of alcohol.

Traditional Shetland Reestit Mutton Soup Recipe | Elizabeth's ...
Reestit mutton soup. Recipe by Elizabeth’s Kitchen Diary.

Once leaving my primary school I only ever attended Up Helly Aa a couple more times. Perhaps for the reason because it is a very family-oriented festival rooted in Shetland tradition. For many families it brings back loved ones from studies and jobs all over the world. A reunion where time can be spent together having fun just like Mid-Autumn Festival, Chinese New Year and Winter Solstice. My family isn’t from Shetland and Up Helly Aa would reinforce to me that I wasn’t strongly tied to this festival like so many of my Shetland friends. I never felt out-cast, but I don’t have the emotional connection to it. Similarly, I most likely wouldn’t feel truly part of the Chinese festivals either. I suppose being from two different ethnic backgrounds I won’t ever feel like I belong to either one of them fully, but I am fortunate that I can experience a bit of both. 

About the Author

Ming Sanford, daughter of proclaimed artists Meilo So and Ron Sandford, has found an art of her own: writing. The Hongkongnese-British 20-year-old currently resides in Cullivoe on Yell. Read more of her work on the New Shetlander, including a fantasy tale set in New York.

Published by holidaysallyearround

For most cultures, holidays serve as the only opportunities in the year in which we come together: to reunite with faraway relatives, reconcile our past ancestors, and refill stomachs. And for most, holidays fall deep into history, myths, or grandma's fictitious tales that dictate the food boiling after a sacrificial ceremony to the decorations adorned on doors.

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