Every year, thousands of Scots gather for the Up Helly Aa fire festival in Lerwick on the Scottish Shetland Islands to pay homage to the country's Viking heritage. The day long celebration consist of costumed parties and culminates in a torchlight parade and the burning of a Viking long boat. There are also plenty of kilts, marches to brass band music, even a new beer found only at the event.
At least 5,000 spectators come to watch more than 1,000 torch carrying "Vikings", in silver plates and helmets, with heavy axes and shields, march the galley around the town. Some enact the roles of famous "Jarls" from the local saga, the Orkneyinga. At the climax, all the Vikings throw their flaming torches into the galley. The whole crowd sings Viking songs and the party continues long after the last flames have died away.
Scotland's Shetland Islands have a rich Viking heritage. During the Regency period and the years following the Napoleonic Wars, Lerwick was the home of many returning soldiers and sailors, most of whom were looking for a good party. It became a rowdy place, particularly during the week after Christmas, and by the 1840s, celebrations usually involved setting lots of things on fire. Initial ceremonies revolved around a single custom called "tar-barreling" -- knocking together tubs of tar and setting them on fire. When that became too dangerous, the annual ceremony was changed to a more elaborate procession of costumed Viking events.
The first official Up-Helly-Aa celebration started in 1880 and it has been going on since then.
Sources: About.com, CNN. Photos: Getty Images