Remember, remember, the 5th of November – that beautiful celebration of a foiled terrorist plot, now commemorated by burning effigies and the setting off of brightly coloured explosives. Some UK destinations have more niche ways of commemorating Mr Fawkes than others; and we’re not the only ones to hold weird and wonderful holidays involving flashes and bangs. Here are eight of the downright strangest fire-inspired events from around the globe.
Lewes: Political effigies
The idyllic town of Lewes in Sussex is renowned for its Bonfire Night celebrations, when revelry and rebellion come together in one exhilarating package. Inhabitants traditionally took the opportunity to run riot and set fire to buildings at random, with the arsonists referred to as Bonfire Boyes and Belles, until the mid-19th century when two bonfire societies were formed to formalise proceedings. Today, there are five societies, each of whom process through the town and create their own effigy tableaus to burn, many of which are based on topical celebrities or politicians. In 2015, for instance, effigies of David Cameron with a pig, Jeremy Clarkson, and Sepp Blatter were ceremonially set alight.
Ottery St Mary: Tar barrels
Imagine being packed into a crowded narrow street, trying to dart out the way while someone holding a giant flaming barrel runs towards you at speed. Fun, eh?
This is the annual tar barrelling event in the tiny Devonshire town of Ottery St Mary, where the tradition has been going strong for around 400 years. Some 17 tar barrels get set on fire and carried through the streets over barrel rollers’ heads during the event, and the sheer volume of spectators means getting out of the way of the flames can be tricky. Each of the local pubs sponsors its own barrel, with its own team of rollers; the dubious honour of carrying a giant fireball above one’s head is usually passed down through families from generation to generation. The barrels get bigger as the day progresses: in the afternoon and early evening there are women's and boys’ barrels, but by the last ones at midnight they weigh at least 30kg.
The Netherlands: New Year’s Eve
Although having fireworks on New Year’s Eve is hardly a ground-breaking concept, the Dutch don’t just set off some pretty sparkles at midnight – they take things a little further. Rather than have the burden of health and safety regulations that come with a formally organised event, instead people set off their own fireworks – in parks, on street corners (basically wherever there’s space). At the strike of midnight the country descends into chaos as for the next few hours men, women and children go to town, creating an atmosphere that has been described as being “like a warzone”, resulting in numerous accidents and injuries over the years.
Shetland Islands: Up Helly Aa
Up Helly Aa, which takes place in Lerwick in the Shetland Islands on the last Tuesday in January each year, is a beautifully bonkers event. Originating in the 1880s, it involves a torchlit procession of thousands that culminates in the burning of a Viking longship. Locals dress up as Vikings for the day (well, why wouldn’t you?) with one person playing the Guizer Jarl (head honcho), the leader of the Jarl Squad.
The village of Vrontados on the island of Chios long ago eschewed egg hunts in favour of something far racier to celebrate Easter. The island’s two rival churches, Angios Marcos and Panaghia Ereithiani, instead commemorate Jesus’ rising from the dead by having a rocket war. From 8pm to 12am, wooden sticks capped with gunpowder are fired relentlessly from makeshift cannons, with the battle traditionally only finishing when one church hits the other’s bell tower. Generally these days both churches claim to have been victorious – at least that means there’s always a reason for a rematch next year.
Mexico: National Pyrotechnic Festival
This festival in Tultepec does what it says on the tin. A celebration of all things flaming, this nine-day extravaganza in March features a pamplonada – a running with bulls-type event with fire. More than 200 wooden, bull-shaped structures adorned with fireworks are paraded through the streets for up to six hours. There’s also the contest of castillos; intricately designed castles from 80 to 100ft tall are festooned with fireworks, which are set off to create images and make parts of the castillo structure move.
Stonehaven: Fireball swinging
The Scottish celebration of Hogmanay is amped up in Stonehaven, where locals celebrate by literally swinging great balls of fire over their heads. Spectators are welcome to attend the festivities, and the event now draws thousands each year. Starting at midnight, people of all ages swing flaming wire cages around their heads for the next half hour. Each cage is filled with a combustible material, made to the swinger’s own secret recipe, and has a wire handle two or three feet long. The idea was originally to burn off the bad spirits left from the old year so that the spirits of the New Year can enter in with a fresh start.
China: Molten iron throwing
Fire-based activities don’t get much more intense than NuanQuan’s Chinese New Year celebrations. The town traditionally had lots of blacksmith shops – and the blacksmiths, who couldn’t afford the proper fireworks usually set off at New Year, instead splashed molten metal on the city walls, creating sparks and using the cooling iron to make flower shapes. The town now pays homage to its past with a modern day molten metal show. It’s not for the fainthearted, with the only protection against the 980-degree metal being a sheepskin jacket, goggles and a straw hat. Wooden ladles soaked in water for days prior to the event are used, so that they don’t immediately combust upon impact with the molten mix of iron, aluminium and copper. Performers dip in their ladles and throw the metal against the city walls, creating impressive showers of sparks.
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