Winter fire festival fun

Fire Festival
Get festive the fiery way!

Billowing flames light the night sky, sparks and embers drift on the cold winter wind, and everywhere people laugh and roar, dance and sing, drink and make merry.

Yes, it’s time to get busy with your log splitter because it’s winter fire festival season.

But what fiery treats are on offer?

Burning ambition

Fire at a fire festival
Image source: Lee Coursey
Get your diary out and start planning!

Some you’ve already missed, others are yet to come – the great advantage of celebrating pagan style is that there’s always a festival around the corner, a good blaze to look forward to.

The ancient celts loved nothing better than a good burn up.  Fire festivals were opportunities to let your hair down, knock back unhealthy amounts of ale and mead, and generally have a good time. But the feast days were also tied to nature, the land, fertility and of course, the passage of the sun through the heavens.

We’re talking Beltane, Samhuinn, Imbolc and Lughnasadh – May day, Halloween, Candlemas and Harvest festival. And then there are the viking festivals, and to top it all, the most recent addition to the fiery calendar – Guy Fawkes night.  

Fire festivals

We can’t cover all the options to bake yourself before the flames, but here are a few of the best festivals – celebrations to fire the imagination.

Up Helly Aa

Fire at a fire festival
Image source: Vicky Brock
A burning galley at Up Helly Aa.

You’ll have to blaze a trail North for this one – all the way to the Shetland Isles, home to 25,000 fire festival fanatics and Up Helly Aa – a Viking style inferno held on the last Tuesday in January in Lerwick.  

There you’ll find the “Guizer Jarl” – carnival king for a day – dressed in Norse finery and standing in the bow of a replica viking longship. Astern of the vessel is an army of 800 men, each dressed as a Norse warrior and clutching a flaming torch.The ship is dragged through the town to the burning site, where the torchbearers circle the galley. As a signal rocket bursts over the town, the “Jarl” leaps from his galley and the warriors fling their torches into the belly of the boat. The whole lot goes up in flames, and Shetland parties for a full 24 hours.

Not for the faint hearted, Up Helly Aa is the experience of a lifetime!

Ancient flame

Ancient flame
Image source: Jim Champion
A fire starter at Butser Ancient Farm.

If you fancy experiencing a fire festival as your Iron Age ancestors might have done, why not head to Butser Ancient Farm in Hampshire this December? You’ll be just in time to party with the pagans! Celebrate “Saternalia”, the Roman equivalent of Christmas”, enjoy Winter solstice tales around the fire, and in January, there’s an afternoon celebration of Imbolc.

Set up in the 1970s, Butser Ancient Farm is living archeology. By testing their theories in practise, experts are able to get a better picture of the way our forebears lived. And you can be a part of it – don’t miss the spectacular spring festival of Beltane –  a 30ft high Wicker man is set ablaze. Just make sure you’re not part of the sacrifice to the gods!

Beltane inferno

Beltane inferno
Image source: Chris Booth
Impressive fire arch at Beltane inferno

Edinburgh does festivals like no other city in the UK – and when it comes to celtic style conflagrations, the flames of success reach ever higher. For the Beltane festival, expect otherworldly spectacle with costume clad performers, cavorting in the torchlight.

Featuring the death and rebirth of the Greenman and the lighting of the fires to banish winter and welcome spring, the Beltane celebrations are held each year on the city’s Calton Hill. Not quite sure where that is? As the organisers say – “just head for the high ground, then follow the sound of drumming.”

Hatherleigh Carnival

Hatherleigh Carnival
Image source: Unbekannt270
Watch the flaming sleds at the Hatherleigh Carnival.

An autumn festival with its roots firmly buried in the mists of time, the Hatherleigh Carnival is a spectacle well worth the long trip down to rural Mid Devon. Held on the first Saturday in November, the Hatherleigh Carnival features a kaleidoscope of tableau constructed from crepe paper and drawn behind tractors burnished to gleaming splendour.

But what really draws the crowds is the practice of dragging sleds loaded with flaming tar barrels through the town. The carnival begins at 5:00 am when the first of two sleds is pulled through the streets of Hatherleigh to mark the commencement of festivities. What follows is a community celebration that continues right through to the second spectacular flaming sled, later the same evening.

Ottery Tar Barrels

Ottery Tar Barrels
Image source: gareth.fudge
Tar barrels at Ottery St Mary

It’s nothing if not “Ot” in Ottery St Mary, as each 5th November, the town’s men, women and children set fire to straw stuffed tar barrels, then run through the narrow streets with them balanced precariously on their backs. The date of the event suggests it has to do with Guy Fawkes, gunpowder, treason and plot, but like so many of our winter celebrations its origins are almost certainly far older.

Throughout the day, a total of seventeen burning barrels are toted through the town by men, women and boys. But as the organisers of the East Devon event are keen to point out – the tar barrels is a local tradition not a tourist event, and more about the continuation of an ancient tradition than a spectacle for visitors. That said, each year, up to 30,000 people flock to the town – if you go, wear something non-flammable.

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