Burn It to the Ground: A Guide to the World's Best Fire Festivals - Atlas Obscura
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Burn It to the Ground: A Guide to the World’s Best Fire Festivals

Why are people fascinated by fire? Candles, campfires, bonfires, and flickering flames seem to tap into a primal sense of safety. And if there’s anything better than a small fire, it’s a massive one, so why not throw a party for the occasion?

Here we explore some of the best fire festivals around the world where that safety gets a little dangerous.

Up Helly Aa
Lerwick, Scotland

article-imageTownspeople in full regalia (photograph by Mike Pennington)

Up Helly Aa is Europe’s biggest fire festival, and since the 1880s the festival has only been cancelled three times: Queen Victoria’s death in 1901, and for the two World Wars. The local townspeople spend countless hours designing elaborate costumes, dressing as Vikings, and lighting thousands of torches for a grand procession.

The Wednesday after the event is always public holiday so that everyone can recover.

Date: Last Tuesday in January

article-imagephotograph by Anne Burgess

Daizenji Tamataregu Shrine’s “Oniyo”
Fukuoka, Japan

article-imageOnlookers surrounded by giant torches for the devil fire (photograph by Pontafon/Wikimedia)

 The Oniyo ceremony performed by the Daizenji Tamataregu Shrine for the past 1600 years is intended to drive away evil spirits.
 
The fire ritual marks the end of the Onikai festival, which begins on New Year’s Eve. At 9 pm on January 7, the Oniyo (“devil fire”) which has been guarded at the temple is transferred to six massive torches more than three feet in diameter and almost 45 feet tall. Rowdy crowds of men in loincloths parade the torches around the shrine, and attendees to the ceremony are blessed with good luck with embers or ash fall on them.

Date: January 7

Jeongwol Daeboreum Deulbul Festival
Jeju, South Korea

article-imagephotograph by buddhaflow/Flickr

Since 1997, the Jeongwol Daeboreum Deulbul Festival has celebrated the traditional folk culture of the local Korean villages on the island of Jeju. Historically, farmers used to set fire to the mountain fields to burn off the dead grass and to eliminate pests. Festival participants commemorate this by setting a hilltop on fire to wish for heatlh and a good harvest. Straw rope making competitions, strength demonstrations, and a torch-lit procession round out the entertainment. 

Dates: Three days in March

article-imagephotograph by buddhaflow/Flickr

Quema del Diablo
Antigua, Guatemala

article-imagephotograph by Keneth Cruz

In the first week of December, the Guatemalan town of Antigua begins selling devil figurines made of papier-mâché. And at the center of the festivities is a large wooden statute of the Devil, which is burnt every December 7 to prepare for the feast of Mary of the Immaculate Conception. In colonial times, the rich would decorate their homes with lanterns, but the poor could afford only to burn trash outside their homes. As time passed, communities in Antigua formalized the event, and the idea is now to burn all of the bad stuff from one year to start anew in the next. 

Date: December 7

Guy Fawkes Night
England

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Spectators around a bonfire near Dudley (photograph by Sam Roberts)

“Remember, remember, the fifth of November.” is the refrain commonly associated with this night of bonfires across Great Britain. The burnings of effigies and fires commemorate the events of November 5, 1605 when a Catholic man named Guy Fawkes was arrested in a plot to detonate explosives under the House of Lords. To celebrate that King James I had escaped an assassination attempt, the English lit bonfires around London, and the day was made official by law in 1606.

Date: November 5

article-image
A Guy Fawkes effigy aflame in Essex (photograph by William Warby)

Diwali
India

article-imagephotograph by Harpeet Singh

Known as the festival of lights, Diwali is a Hindu festival that signifies the victory of light over darkness, knowledge over ignorance, and hope over despair. While the festival preparations and rituals extend over five days, the main night coincides with the darkest new moon of the Hindu month of Kartik. In 2014, October 23 will be the key festival night in which Hindus dress up in their best, light candles both inside and outside the home, and pray as a family to Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and prosperity. Fireworks liven up the night, followed by a family feast of sweets and an exchange of gifts.

Date: A day between mid-October and mid-November

article-image Diwali festivities over Mysore (photograph by UrbanUrban_ru/Wikimedia)

Walpurgis Night
Multiple locations in Europe

article-imagephotograph by Karin Jonsson

Walpurgis Night is the evening before the feast day of Saint Walpurga, an 8th century abbess in Germany. According to German folktales, Walpurgis night is when witches meet in the wooded hills of central Germany. Appropriately, the Church of Satan was also founded on this date. Each country celebrates the night differently. For example, Estonians dress up as witches to wander the streets, while the Czech burn straw witches and broomsticks around roaring fires. In Sweden, choirs sing around giant bonfires, while students in Uppsala ride through the center of town on homemade rafts.

Date: April 30

article-imagephotograph by Montecruz Foto

Beltane Fire Festival
Edinburgh, Scotland

article-imageThe Red Men of the Beltran Fire Festival (photograph by SixSigma/Wikimedia)

Inspired by the Gaelic festival of Beltrane, the modern fire festival began in 1988, and now involves over 300 performers. Holy bonfires are kindled, and traditionally, cattle were driven around or over the embers to bless them. Surrounded by handmaidens, the May Queen leads a procession of ritual dancers, fire-twirling sprites, and curious onlookers in a fiery celebration of the start of spring.

Date: April 30

article-imageThe May Queen presents herself to the crowd. (photograph by Stefan Schäfer, Lich)

article-image
A fire dancer performs by a bonfire (photograph by Stefan Schäfer, Lich)

Burning Man
Black Rock Desert, United States

article-image
El Pulpo Mecánico lighting up the desert night (photo by the author)

With the often-repeated motto “Welcome Home,” Burning Man is the behemoth of fire festivals, with over 50,000 people conjuring a bustling city in the middle of the northern Nevada desert. Since 1986, and growing ever larger each year, a giant wooden figure has been incinerated to mark a week of impossible buildings and otherworldly vehicles (most of which belch flame).

The popularity of this festival inspired the creation of regional burns around the world. The biggest of these is AfrikaBurn, which started in 2007 and is held annually by Tankwa Karoo National Park in South Africa.

Dates: Last Monday in August until the first Monday in September (Labor Day)

article-image
One of the lesser temples burning (photo by the author) 

Les Jardins de Feu
London, England

article-image
Kinetic fire sculptures (Photograph by the author)

Nestled by the shores of the Thames, the Jardins de Feu (Gardens of Fire) by the French outfit Carabosse takes over the gritty site of the old Battersea Power Station with whirling installations of flame. As the sun sets over London, a flaming chandelier is hoisted over the crowd while Parisian musicians croon away. 

Dates: Two days a year in early September.

article-image
Battersea Power Station (photo by the author)

article-image
Spinning gyroscope of flame (photo by the author)

Falles
Valencia, Spain

article-imageDrummers celebrating Falles (photograph by Chamaeleon/Wikimedia)

Over a festive five days, the celebration of Falles commemorates Saint Joseph in the city of Valencia. Committees of people in the community build massive sculptures that are also called falles, often in the shape of people. The 2012 pieces included Barack Obama and Lady Gaga.

Each morning of the festival, brass bands march down every street playing upbeat tunes while other people throw massive firecrackers into the street. Around 2 pm, fireworks displays are set off. On the final night of Falles, midnight marks the burning of the sculptures, each packed with fireworks. For burnings on narrow streets, fire brigades drench the buildings with hoses to prevent them from catching fire. The main event is the largest sculpture, which rests in front of the town hall. 

Dates: March 15 - 19

(Thanks to Mario for suggesting Falles!)

article-image
A firework-filled Falles going up in flames (photograph by Chameleon/Wikimedia)


Discover more of the world’s incredible and strange festivals on Atlas Obscura >