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UP HELLY-AA

Up Helly-Aa is the most exciting New Year's eve festival on the planet. It is celebrated on the last Tuesday of each January in Lerwick, the capital of the Shetland Isles, the most northerly part of Great Britain. Up Helly Aa consists of an enchanting blend of superstition, pyromania and fancy dress. Its highlight is a torch-lit procession, that culminates in the incineration of a Viking long-ship in a raging inferno, whose flames seem to consume all the ill will and vexation of the year gone by, whilst the warmth and brilliance that they generate in the middle of a Northern winter provide hope for the new year ahead. Once the long-ship has been reduced to embers the festival's costumed celebrants make a tour of the bars and Halls of Lerwick, where they are greeted with food, drink and the opportunity to dance, whilst in return they perform theatrical entertainments. The festival lasts throughout the long dark night, and has a handsome pedigree of riot and intoxication.

However, Up Helly Aa is more than just an imaginative celebration of the calendar, a chance to defy the winter with fire and whisky, for it has been adopted by the Shetlanders as a platform on which to commemorate their Viking origin. Whilst the Islands have been part of first Scotland, and then the United Kingdom for more than 500 years, they were once ruled by the Sea-rovers, and their inhabitants consider themselves to be a breed apart from the British. As a consequence, Up Helly Aa has been decorated with Viking iconography, and the festival has been pressed into service to assist a community that lacks its own political identity to define itself.

The Up Helly-Aa song (to the tune of Glory Glory Hallelujah):

From grand old Viking centuries Up-Helly-A' has come,
Then light the torch and form the march, and sound the rolling drum:
And wake the mighty memories of heroes that are dumb;
The waves are rolling on.

Grand old Vikings ruled upon the ocean vast,
Their brave battle-songs still thunder on the blast;
Their wild war-cry comes a-ringing from the past;
We answer it "A-oi"!
Roll their glory down the ages,
Sons of warriors and sages,
When the fight for Freedom rages,
Be bold and strong as they!