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Subscribe to this list via RSS Blog posts tagged in Up Helly Aa

Posted by on in Culture Blogs

 

 

January is a series of farewells.

Yule: the year's greatest feasting. Through the dark nights of December, we progressively prepare for and welcome its coming. Throughout the Thirteen Nights, we feast our beloved guest. Through the dark days of January, we bid our repeated farewells.

(In this we are like the Old Pagans, the Kalasha of Pakistan, who alone of all the peoples of the Indo-Euorpean diaspora have held to their traditional religion continuously since antiquity.)

We bid a first farewell at Thirteenth Night, thirteen days after the Solstice, as the Merry Monarch of Misrule presides over the feast's last feast.

We bid another farewell on King Day, when the Yule greens come down.

(This is a local household tradition that started years ago because my then-housemate had the day off work and I myself off school. Taking Yule down is just as much work as putting it up. Interestingly, though, it's not a mere marriage of convenience: the realia of MLK's life, death, and legacy interlaces surprisingly well with end-of-Yule lore as well.)

We bid yet another farewell on Twenty-Sixth Night, 2 x 13.

We bid a final farewell to Yule on Thirty-Ninth Night, 3 x 13. Technically, this year that would be Thursday, January 29, but in practice (in this house at least), we observe it on the last Tuesday in January, in sororal solidarity with Europe's greatest fire festival, Shetland's Up Helly Aa (lit. “Up Holiday All”: i.e. “the holiday's completely over”).

 

Old Yuletide is past:

Thirteenth Night is the last.

 

So begins the last verse of the most famous of the many carols for Yulesend. Why “Old Yule,” you ask?

Not hard: Yule, the solar New Year, is the microcosm of the solar year. Its Thirteen Days constitute a Year-in-Little, one day for each moon. Like the Sun, like the Year, Yule comes in as a Babe and goes out an Old Man.

Some years back, though, I overheard a friend singing a variant:

 

Bold Yuletide is past:

Thirteenth Night is the last.

 

“Bold Yuletide.” I like that. It echoes, of course, the name of Bold Slasher, one of the characters of the traditional death-and-rebirth Yuletide Mummer's Play.

It's more than that, though. There's something audacious, something in-your-face about Yule: its affirmation of light in a time of dark, its affirmation of plenty in a time of dearth.

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Last Tree Standing

If it were a contest, I'd win every year.

Last Yule tree on the block.

Call it the “Long Yule.”

Up here in the North, through our dark days and cold nights, we come yet again and again to drink from that fountain of living light.

Yule is a long farewell. At Thirteenth Night we begin; again, a thirtnight later, at Twenty-Sixth (3 x 13) Night, we continue. Last of all is Thirty-Ninth Night, what in Shetland they call Up-Helly-Aa: “Up-Holiday-All.”

By then, of course, we can see the fires of Imbolc burning on the horizon: our midwinter, halfway hope, by which time the greens will all have been burned and the geegaws laid by, with nothing over but ash, and the pure, pure Light.

The rest of Yule is all boxed up and put away. Only the tree remains: a worn familiarity, its glories somewhat dimmed as the Sun's light waxes.

But for now, for just this little while longer, I'll fondly sit and warm my hands at the embers of a dying fire.

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The Left-Hand Lord of Hvalsey: A Tale for Up-Helly-Aa

There was a man in Orkney named Erik Red Hand, generally well-thought-of, though said by some to be over-ruthless.

A dispute arose between this Erik and a man named Ketil Asmundsson over which of them was the rightful owner of the island of Hvalsey.

The dispute went back and forth until finally they reached an agreement. At sunrise on the last day of Yule they would both set sail from Torshavn ("Thor's Harbor") Bay to Hvalsey. Whoever reached the island first would become its rightful lord.

Next morning they set off at the appointed time. It soon became clear that Ketil's ship was the faster of the two and would be first to land.

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The Long Farewell

Around here there's a social institution known as the Minnesota Long Goodbye, a fixture of local Politeness culture. “Well, guess we'll be heading out,” you say. But you can't leave yet; that would imply that you aren't enjoying the company, and are eager to go. 5 minutes later, you stand up. 5 minutes after that you put on your coat. Another 5, and you go to the door. Leaning against the door-jamb, you talk for yet another 5. Then you actually leave.

Yule is like that. This year the last of the Thirteen Nights was January 2; the Merry Monarch of Misrule (in her Steampunk crown) presided over one final debauch, and we sang the old Yule songs for the last time this season. Time to head on out, I guess.

But Yule itself has yet to come down. The tree and other appurtenances generally go up in mid-December and linger until mid-January or so: about a month, a twelving of the year. (By long-standing household tradition, our tree finally comes down on King Day: no work, no school.) Here in the Northlands, Yule ushers in the coldest, most housebound time of the year: “As the days grow longer, the cold grows stronger” goes the saying. (Variant: “As the day lengthens, the cold strengthens.”) On the couch the other night, I closed the novel I'd just finished reading, turned off the light, and laid back in quiet appreciation of the Yule Tree's ongoing beauty and magic: a fountain of light in the heart of darkest winter.

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