Torch Festival, Dali, China

Fire festivals around the world

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A great fire festival should be on everybody’s bucket list. Here we rundown some of the greats…

Guy Fawkes Night, UK

People watching fireworks at Nevill Junior Bonfire night

“Remember, remember the fifth of November – gunpowder, treason and plot” – a rhyme Brits have grown up reciting in the run-up to Guy Fawkes Night (also known as Bonfire Night or Fireworks Night). The origins of the festival lie when revolutionary Guy Fawkes famously tried (and failed) to blow up the Houses of Parliament on 5th November 1605. For most people in the UK Guy Fawkes Night involves standing around with sparklers, eating toffee apples and watching a bonfire and fireworks, whilst the local fire brigade roar up and down putting out the more stupidly-planned local fires. Traditionally at the centre of Guy Fawkes Night proceedings is the burning of a homemade “Guy” on the bonfire – something which often strikes visitors as a far grislier idea than it does locals, who’ve grown up with the tradition.

Up Helly-Aa, Shetland

Locals dressed in Viking costumes hold burning torches in Lerwick during the Up Helly Aa Festival

If we’re being honest with ourselves here, Shetland’s Up Helly-Aa festival has its roots in Victorian creativity rather than any truly pagan history, but it’s extremely good fun, which is largely the point. At the end of the Yule season a procession of up to a thousand “guizers” march through Lerwick in gangs, finally reaching the shore where their burning torches are flung into a replica Viking longboat, which is pushed off to sea with great ceremony. Once the boat’s burning, the guizers proceed around local halls, schools, hotels and pubs, performing entertainments – the more flamboyant the better. Indeed such is the exuberance of the festival that it’s earned the local nickname “Tranvestite Tuesday”.

Burning Man, Nevada, USA

Fire Twirling at the Burning Man Festival

Possibly the best-known modern fire festival, Burning Man is often seen as more of a temporary city than a festival. Tens of thousands descend on the Black Rock Desert for the week running up to Labor Day, for this great experiment in community and self-expression. A gift economy operates onsite, nobody uses money, which seems to work remarkably well considering that 2011’s attendance was capped at 50,000 and sold out. If you’re planning a visit, look seriously into how well you’re going to be able to look after yourself in what is, after all, a desert – without even cell phone coverage. The end of the week brings the burning of a great human figure and a temple, before what is perhaps the most breathtaking communitas of all, absolutely every trace of the festival is painstakingly removed leaving nothing but desert behind.

Wickerman, Scotland

Wickerman Solstice Dance

While Burning Man has always insisted it has no connection with the horror movie, the Wickerman festival in Scotland rejoices gleefully in the link. If you can’t take the word “festival” seriously unless there are big stages and rock bands all over the place, Wickerman is your answer – since 2001 this small-scale version of Glastonbury has been drawing thousands of visitors and winning awards for its eclectic mix of music. As well as the main stage (named Summerisle after the island in the film), there’s a reggae stage, a punk stage, the Solus tent for new Scottish bands and the usual collection of children’s areas, beer tents and craft workshops. Big names appearing in recent years have included KT Tunstall, The Human League and Goldie Lookin’ Chain. The climax of the week comes, inevitably, with the burning of a thirty-foot wicker man. The addition of a Quiet Campsite means that this is probably the most family-friendly fire – or indeed music – festival you’ll find anywhere.

Dali Torch Festival, China

The Dali Torch Festival is probably the only really ancient festival on this list, which sees thousands flock to Dali in the Yunnan province. The Torch Festival sees attendees carrying huge beacons of fire, and throwing pine resin at the flames to create fireballs. As you’d imagine, it’s NOT very safe and children in particular will need to be watched closely – if you’re carrying a torch yourself, people might well fling resin at it. There are reckoned to be some half a million people on the streets during the Torch Festival, so make sure you’re ready for intense crowds, too. There have been reports of visitors coming back with their eyebrows charred.