5 Spectacular Fire Festivals for Your Travel Bucket List

5 Spectacular Fire Festivals for Your Travel Bucket List
The Up Helly AA festival in Scotland. Fire rituals across the globe offer an interesting insight into many communities, Photo Credit: Shutterstock

From walking over burning embers to burning effigies to pyrotechnic splendours, ritualistic fire festivals across the globe offer an interesting insight into many communities and cultures

OT Staff
July 16 , 2021
13 Min Read

From religious rites to fiestas, fire rituals have been part of popular culture since time immemorial. It includes burning of effigies, walking over burning embers, pyrotechnics, etc. While festivals or events such as Dussehra in India or Guy Fawkes’ Night in the UK are well known across the globe, fire rituals are also seen in many other countries. Here is our list of five favourite fire rituals.  

Japan

Known as Hiwatari Matsuri (Fire Walking Festival), it is part of Japanese Buddhist rituals, associated with the worship of Shugendo and Fudo Myoo. However, it requires courage and discipline to walk over the bed of burning ashes.

 
 
 
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The festival is best observed at Takao-san Yakuo-in temple (near Tokyo), and Tanukidanisan Fudo-in temple (near Kyoto). The main ritual consists of burning of prayer sticks called ‘goma’ with Shugendo priests walking over the burning embers. Members of the public attending the festival may walk over the ashes too after the priests have completed their turn.

Nozawa Onsen Dosojin Matsuri or the Nozawa Fire Festival is another popular fire festival in Japan. Held on January 15 every year, it is considered as one of the nationally designated intangible folk heritage.

 
 
 
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Even the freezing temperature and the snow cannot deter people from holding or attending the festival. Preparations for the festival begin months ahead, with the cutting of branches of trees in the mountains. These branches are brought down to the village a couple of days before the festival and piled high to build a ‘shaden’ which is consecrated by priests. On the final day, men engage in a mock fight between torch-bearing villagers and the guards, which ends in setting fire to the wood pile and offering the torches to the dedicated deity.

England

Imagine ordinary townspeople running through the streets with burning tar barrels on their back. Sounds strange? Then do visit Ottery St Mary, a small town in Devon, England. Although the origin of the festival is lost in antiquity, it is believed to date back to the 17th century. Called the Tar Barrel Festival, it is held on November 5 every year. 

 
 
 
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Weeks prior to the event barrels are soaked with tar, the final weight determined by who is going to carry it – young boys, women or men. Usually each barrel (17 barrels in all) is sponsored by the town’s central public houses. On the day of the event, the barrels are lit outside the pubs and participants hoist them on their backs and run through the streets. Bonfires and fireworks also mark the event.

 
 
 
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A similar festival (T’ar Baal) is also organised in Allendale, Northumbria, where men carry burning barrels filled with tar, sawdust, etc., on their heads walk in a procession. It is held on New Year’s eve.

Spain

If you are visiting Spain in March, maybe you can drop in at Valencia during the Las Fallas, held between March 15 and 19 every year. From brass bands to fireworks, the town appears to erupt into all the noise it can make. Among the various events, one of the most popular is the burning of the fire-cracker stuffed ‘ninots’ or effigies made of wood, Styrofoam and other combustible products. 

 
 
 
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Apparently, the festival originated during the Middle Ages – carpenters would hang planks of wood (parots) in winter to support their candles while working; with the arrival of spring, they would burn the pieces of wood to mark the end of the winter working days. Gradually, the event was linked to Saint Joseph’s Day (the patron saint of carpenters) and the parots evolved into huge caricatures of well-known personalities.

Guatemala

Guatemala observes La Quema del Diablo or Burning the Devil every December 7. According to social historians, the festival has evolved over the years since colonial times. Apparently, it started with people lighting bonfires outside their homes to mark special occasions, and then got linked to Church rituals, to the Feast of the Immaculate Conception.

 
 
 
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Imaginatively created figures of the devil are set alight with fireworks at night. Some revellers take to the street dressed like the devil. Firework shows are also organised.

Scotland

The subarctic archipelago of Shetland, which is part of the Northern Isles of Scotland has a history of being colonised by the Vikings. Up Helly Aa is fire festival held here from January to March across Shetland, primarily to mark the end of Yule. The main attraction is the procession of the ‘guizers’ or people in period costumes carrying torces and the burning of a replica of a Viking galley. 

 
 
 
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The biggest event is held in Lerwick, the largest settlement. Apparently, this festival was introduced in the 19th century to replace the tar barrelling festival and the resulting mischief created by the revellers.


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