Fire can have a hypnotic effect, which is probably why it features at milestones of the pagan year. But if you plan to have bonfires or fireworks as part of a winter solstice ritual or Hogmanay celebrations we advise careful planning, because any kind of fire brings with it the risk of injury or worse…
From Brighton to Aberdeen, between now and January 6th people will be using fire and smoke to mark milestones in the passing year.
For some, these are rites rooted firmly in our pagan past; for others they’re a new phenomenon, but whatever their age they draw people together, to be enchanted by the unceasingly hypnotic glow of flame and the crackle of fire.
Brighton begins the festivities at the end of December 21st – the shortest day – with ‘Burning the Clocks’, the newest winter solstice fire ceremony, and the only one taking place on that day. Illuminated lanterns are taken to the beach, where they are added to a bonfire before a firework show. The event is in its 21st year, but now regularly attracts more than 20,000 spectators.
Much older, and taking place on New Year’s Eve, are the Allendale Tar Barl Festival in Northumberland and the Stonehaven Fireballs event near Aberdeen.
The former involves 45 brave souls carrying whisky barrels of burning tar on their heads in a flame-lit parade through the town. Dressed in ceremonial costume, the barrel carriers are called ‘guisers’ and the right to be one is guarded jealously and handed down through families. This ritual is said to have been in existence since the dark ages, and ends with the barrels making a bonfire.
North of the border on Hogmanay, revellers have been getting even more enthusiastic with fire. The 150-year-old ceremony at Stonehaven, said never to have been halted for anything, including the fierce Scots weather, also draws crowds of thousands.
The ceremony begins at midnight, when a pipe band leads kilt-clad ‘fire dancers’ through the streets. Their role is to whirl baskets of fire around their heads, showering sparks in every direction, as they make their way to the town’s harbour for a firework display.
And on January 6th the Haxey Hood brings fire and smoke closest to an individual with the ceremony of Smoking The Fool, one of the brightly-clad officials of a fairly rule-free ‘football’ game. His wreathing in clouds of smoke heralds the start of hours of pushing and shoving as scores of participants attempt to push a mass of bodies called the sway to their own chosen pub to deliver to its landlord the Hood, a leather cylinder which will be held aloft in victory, and stay there for the whole year.
Carry out a fire risk assessment
They’re all laudable traditions, and much appreciated in the communities where they take place, but with so much potential for injury the health and safety dimension must never be underestimated.
Organisers of events like these are alive to the risks, but they can be overlooked by individuals who don’t do a fire risk assessment before lighting bonfires, lanterns, and fireworks.
Stay fire safe at your winter solstice celebration
So what can you do stay safe from fire? We advise heeding a few simple rules before ‘playing with fire’:
• Pick a safe area for any bonfire, away from outbuildings and fences
• Keep spectators at a safe distance
• Have fireworks lit by one or two named individuals, who must follow the instructions on each firework
• Never use petrol, paraffin or other similar liquid to ‘get a fire going’
• Have buckets of sand or water handy to tackle fires that may get out of control
• Wrap up well, wearing fire-retardant clothing
• Seriously consider investing in a fire extinguisher and a fire blanket, and keep them to hand. The money involved is minimal compared to the levels of protection they offer.
The Haxey Hood has no written rules, just a verbal one about physical injury. A warning repeated to participants every year, it says: ‘If thou sees a man, knock ‘im down, but don’t ‘urt ‘im’. We’d say it’s important to make sure he doesn’t get burned, either. Enjoy your fiery festivities in safety!