Fire festivals are common to many races and cultures throughout the world. Although the UK tradition has in recent centuries become associated with Guy Fawkes, the use of fire and the burning of effigies in the autumn are arrived at from separate historical strands. There still exist celebrations where fire is the more important element than fireworks, and there are parts of the South East where the effigy is unlikely to be Guy Fawkes but may be a contemporary figure from public life (see Bonfire Societies).
Hogmanay & New Year
The Scots, in particular, are noted for their celebrations of New Year, sometimes on January 11th (New Year before the 1660 calendar change) and often with fire, fireworks or torchlight processions. Edinburgh’s fireworks display is a New Year highlight.
- Burning the Clavie
- The burning Clavie (a herring or whisky barrel) is carried around the streets of Burghead.
- Fireballs in Stonehaven
- At the strike of midnight the High Street is lit up as sixty local fireball-swingers make their way through the town.
- – blazing barrel procession
- New Year is ushered in by 45 guisers carrying flaming barrels to the bonfire in Allendale, Northumbria.
- Comrie Flambeaux Procession
- Said to be the most impressive of torchlight processions, with the torches being made from small birch trees. Comrie, Perthshire
UK Fire Celebrations
Up Helly Aa
Claims to be Europe’s biggest fire celebration. Torchlight procession of thousands, culminating in the famous burning of a Viking longship. Lerwick, Shetland Islands.
Tar Barrel Burning
Ottery St Mary Carnival is better known for the flaming tar barrels carried shoulder-high through the streets. Torchlight procession, bonfire and fireworks complete the festivities.
The Burning of the Clocks
Of much more recent origin, though associated with more archaic roots, Brighton’s celebration includes a parade, the burning of homemade lanterns on the Beach and big firework display.
The origins of celebrations of light and fire are in atavistic and pagan notions centred on the dying of the summer and the onset of long, dark nights, with crops fading and animals hibernating. Primitive communities would symbolically – and even practically – eke out the fading warmth of the summer by lighting large fires marking the onset of a season when fire was essential, providing warmth and light.
In the spring there have also been corresponding festivals to celebrate the opposite: the dying of the winter and the emergence of the season of rebirth and new growth, although these have not survived so well into modern times.
- Imbolc. A Spring festival to celebrate the end of the winter months.
- Beltane. Means ‘bright fire’. Celebrated on May 1st with a bonfire. It was a custom to jump over the fire and the higher the jump the higher the crops would grow.
- Lammas. To honour Lugh, the god of warmth and light. A bonfire was central to the festivities, and a wheel was placed in the middle. When it was well alight the flaming wheel was rolled down a hill, symbolising the descent of the sun.
- Samhain or ‘summer death’ is an October ceremonial of the gentle season’s demise.
Chinese New Year
There is much more to be added to this section, such as the Viking longboat burnings, the Christian Saints’ Day fireworks in Mediterranean countries and others. Come back to this page again (no promises about when new material will appear), or email us with information or links to other sources.