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Fire festivals and celebrating the Vikings

Photographs: Unsplash

Text: Heather Storgaard

In January, the Christmas lights go out, and winter in Northern Europe becomes bleak and dark. But was it always this way? Vikings were known for loving a good party, and sources state that they brightened up the month of January with multiple festivals known as Jul or Yule, which have now become blended with the December-based Christmas. So, what did the Old Yule entail, can we bring it back, and why should internationals even care?

Old Yule

Unlike modern Christmas, Old Yule occurred throughout the winter period into January. Personally, I think we could do with re-separating the Christian Christmas and the Norse-Viking Yule. Who doesn't like more celebrations to brighten the winter? While Christmas is quite a family affair, descriptions of Viking celebrations were anything but. Drinking and sacrifices (maybe we can leave that one behind with the past?) were the order of the day. Supposedly, fires were lit to symbolise warmth, and sunlight would return later in the year, an important idea to cling to in Northern Europe. And these parties were not a four or five-hour affair, as we now know judging by Scandinavian Julefrokosts, but Viking parties went on for three to five days!

Up Helly Aa

In Northern Scotland, the descendants of Vikings who settled in the Northern Isles are still celebrating a modern interpretation of Yule along with their Viking heritage. The Shetland Islands lie between the north coast of the British Isles and the Faroe Islands. The islands, along with Orkney and the northern parts of mainland Scotland, were first settled by Norsemen, or Vikings, and became part of the Twin Kingdom of Denmark and Norway. In the 15th century, the Danish crown was somewhat cash-strapped, and the money needed for a Danish princess to marry the Scottish King couldn't be found. So the islands were pawned to Scotland and broadly forgotten, although occasionally Danish newspapers like to declare that if they paid the dowery today, they could take the islands back!

Across Scotland, the dark winter is brightened with a range of fire-focused festivals. Scotland continues with local festivals, starting with the UK-wide Bonfire (Guy Fawkes) Night. Many of them involve rolling burning barrels through villages or, typically in larger cities, torch-lit processions. Up in the remote North Atlantic, their Scandinavian links haven't been forgotten, and the fire festivals have become a way to celebrate that heritage. In the most famous festival in Lerwick, locals dress up as Vikings, carrying torches and a replica Viking Longship that is then set on fire.

"Supposedly, fires were lit to symbolise warmth, and sunlight would return later in the year, an important idea to cling to in Northern Europe."

Myths and legends

Why are the Vikings such an enduring piece of history, and what makes them worth celebrating with lavish festivals? Of course, modern depictions show violence and bloodshed, but there were also traditions and a rich culture of song, writing and art that is worth remembering.

Beyond Scandinavia, Vikings also became part of the heritage of much of Europe, with their excursions, conquering and mixing with local people. Swedish Vikings fared east, travelling to Ukraine, Poland, the Baltic States and Turkey. The Danelaw in England, the mixed Scandinavian-French Dutchy of Normandy and consequently Norman conquest of southern Italy also played significant parts in early European history. It's also now accepted that mentions of "Vinland" in Norse sagas refer to Canada, with archaeological digs at L'Anse aux Meadows proof of a Viking settlement. How could all this not give rise to myths, legends and enduring fascination?

I annoy Danes by saying they're descended from the farmers who stayed at home, while many of us Internationals are the descendants of those Viking pirates who explored the world. But, even if not genetically, then certainly through our shared sense of exploration.

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