12 of the Most Dazzling Fire Festivals in the World

Article by: Laura Mason|@masonlazarus

Mon April 20, 2015 | 00:00 AM

What is it about humans and fire? Sure, its discovery by early man pretty much ensured our long-term survival on Planet Earth, but our utter fascination with flames continues to this day – as evidenced both by America's $2 billion candle industry AND the plethora of intense, incredible and beautiful fire festivals strewn across the globe. Anthropologists think, according to Discovery.com, that beyond fire's beauty and inherent sense of danger, many of us are drawn to it because it's wild and untamed. Unlike early humans who had to learn to make and harness fires wherever they went, many modern humans never have to know anything beyond switching on a gas-powered stove to get flames to dance. Our mastery of fire has been replaced by a insatiable curiosity about it.

Whatever the reason is for our admiration for the stuff, come with us on a tour of how different cultures celebrate their traditions using the power of fire.

Beltane Fire Festival, Edinburgh, Scotland

Beltane Fire Festival Ellen Duffy   01

Photo by Ellen Duffy

The ancient festival of Beltane marked the beginning of summer, and was held on the night before May 1. Because the changing of the seasons was a big deal to the pastoral Celtic peoples, the start of summer meant a time of light and growth to come. The celebration included baking Beltane bannocks, displaying fresh greenery and handfasting (which could be viewed as a temporary or permanent marriage, as the individuals preferred).

One of the most important parts of the Beltane celebration is the lighting of the Beltane fires. The bonfires represents the growing power of the sun through to midsummer. As is the nature of spring festivals celebrating abundance and earthly delights, the Beltane Fire Festival does include some folks who would prefer to experience the evening without clothes. If you are threatened by the temptation, duck into the bower with your sweetie and strengthen the bonds of your relationship by being handfasted. It won’t hurt.

Afrikaburn, Tankwa Karoo National Park, South Africa

Afrika Burn 2014 Simon O'callaghan   Reflection By Danny Popper

Photo by Simon O'Callaghan

While just 10-15% as large as its mother event, Burning Man, AfrikaBurn is a festival-on-the-rise that's attracting more and more visitors from more than 50 countries around the world. Since its founding in 2007 on a private farm called Stonehenge next to the Tankwa Karoo National Park far away from civilization (about 250 miles outside Cape Town) in the Northern Cape Province of South Africa. The AfrikaBurn Passport that everyone receives suggests the following, “Dance, groove, scream, shout, cartwheel, cavort naked and howl at the moon freely and without hindrance.” Yes, the creative, radical self-expression that defines Burning Man is in full regalia in Africa.

Everyone is a participant. Idealism abounds – no one is moaning, “This isn’t as good as it was four years ago.” The otherworldly landscape and the ephemeral art (and the burning of it) make for a soul-searching experience.

Burning The Clocks, Brighton, England

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Photo by Ray Gibson

Burning the Clocks is a unique festival of light and art that brings the city of Brighton together to mark the Winter Solstice and the longest night of year. The festival was created in 1994 by the award-winning community arts charity Same Sky as a way to celebrate the holiday spirit regardless of people's religious beliefs. Recently it has adopted a totally different purpose as a rebellion against the modern day excess of Christmastime commercialism.

As night falls, the streets are lined with eager spectators who cheer as a parade of light, lit up by thousands of handmade lanterns, winds its way through the streets and down to the shorefront. In total some 20,000 spectators brave the cold to witness this motley procession of white shapes illuminating the darkness of the longest night for the year.

The second phase of the festival shares some similarities with the symbolic burning of art at Burning Man. One by one people pass their handmade, combustible lanterns into a flaming bonfire. The burning lanterns carry the hopes and dreams of the participant for the year to come. As the music builds the larger lanterns are ignited and the crowd roars with excitement. The evening ends at around 8 pm with a crescendo of fireworks exploding over the coastline.

Up Helly Aa, Lerwick, Scotland

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Photo by Andrew Shearer

Each January, an intense bout of viking worship grips cold Lerwick, Scotland as the centuries-old Up Helly Aa event rolls through the town's wet streets. But raiding and pillaging is so 9th century. This mighty band of viking warriors (decked out in furs, leather, and steel) known as the Jarl Squad (led by Guizer Jarl) acts more as if to loosen Old Man Winter's merciless clutch over the region than to rob Lerwick's residents of its iPhones and gold medallions.

Bellowing war cries, beating drums, firing guns and wielding swords, these barrel-chested men and boys parade before hundreds of residents and visitors who've come to witness the celebration for hundreds of years. It all culminates in the epic burning of a massive, painstakingly constructed viking war boat lit afire by 1,000 torches – making it Europe's biggest fire festival. Of course, there are after-parties until dawn, replete with more costumes (sometimes transvestites!) and plenty of booze and testosterone. Think of it as a viking-style Burning Man that has to be seen to be believed.

Las Fallas, Valencia, Spain

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Photo courtesy of Junta Central Fallera

You know that spectacular finale which typically marks the end of an event – the largest, loudest, most brilliant fireworks, the encore hit at the end of a concert, the climactic moment of a dramatic play? For most events, these represent the short, but intense onslaught of thorough gratification; the final answer to your request for more. At Las Fallas however, the climax starts off the festival and it continues through to the end, lasting a total of two weeks. The festivities run day and night, with roughly 4 hours of down time to get some rest between its successive days. It is filled with large and elaborate structures, statues, marching bands, the constant sound of firecrackers, rockets, the smell of gunpowder, giant floats, costumes and more. You can rest assured though, they do have their version of a finale and it’s called La Crema.

Rouketopolemos, Vrontados, Greece

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Photo by RocketWar

What's more impressive than a chocolate egg? Answer: around 60,000 rockets fired between two churches on an idyllic Greek island. That's­ how to celebrate Easter. And that's exactly how the most important date in the Christian calendar is commemorated on the Greek island of Chios, in the breezy seaside village of Vrontados.

In the village, there are two churches: Angios Marcos (St. Mark's) and Panaghia Ereithiani. Like many proximate parishes around the world, there is a rivalry between these houses of worship. But whereas other churches would settle this sort of competition with, say, a bake sale or charity casino, here, the preferred method for almost the last two centuries a rocket war.

As the sun sets over the Aegean, the congregants of the two houses of worship gather their artillery: wooden sticks capped with gunpowder fired from grooved "cannons." At 8 pm, the barrage begins. Groups of men begin lighting off entire batteries of rockets, which zing across the space between the two churches and more often than not end up hitting cars, sidewalks and buildings. Most spectators huddle and watch the show from a safe and secure indoor location. We can't blame them; all those rockets are a compelling sight, but getting hit by a firework can be pretty painful, and minor injuries are a reality of Rouketopolemos.

The barrage goes on until around 12:30 am, and is technically supposed to end when a rival church's bell is hit by a rocket. As both parishes always end up claiming victory, no church ever really comes out on top, and in the process, a casus belli is established for next year's war. Perhaps most amusingly: while all of this rocket madness is going on, and literally thousands of fireworks are being shot into the ether, congregants go to church. 

National Pyrotechnic Festival, Tultepec, Mexico

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Photo by Porter Yates

Each year since, about 100,000 people have descended upon this usually quiet area for nine exciting, dangerous days in March, running, skipping, hopping, jumping and dancing through the world's most prolonged (and waiver-free) display of pyrotechnics. The festival includes three main events of powder-keg glory, as well as carnival rides, kiosks hawking regional street food, musical concerts, dance performances, and a ceremonial release of paper balloons.

A holdover from the original saint day, the festival's main event is a pamplonada, a blazing spin on the running of the bulls. Some 250 toritos —intricate wooden bull-shaped frames festooned with fireworks—are paraded with great fanfare through the streets of Tultepec for as many as six hours. Another of the festival's surefire crowd-pleasers is the contest of castillos, 80- to 100-foot-tall constructions of castles that whirr, slide, zoom and spin when lit. These huge, ingenious Rube Goldberg-esque creations can take as many as 15 days to build, and as long as a half-hour to go through all their showy machinations.

Molten Iron Throwing, Nanquan, China

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Photo by Pixel/Flickr Creative Commons

Around 300 years ago, there were many blacksmith shops in the farming town of NuanQuan. During Chinese New Year, it is a tradition to let off fireworks in an effort to scare off demons. Inspired by the sparks emitted during their iron working, a group of brave blacksmiths (who couldn't afford proper fireworks) one year decided to splash molten metal on the city walls, creating beautiful flower shapes from the cooling iron.

Due to the danger posed by the molten iron (which is 1800 degrees Fahrenheit), only the bravest men perform in the modern-day show. The only barriers between the molten iron and the throwers are a sheepskin jacket, goggles, and a straw hat to protect against the splash of hot metal. The wooden ladles are soaked in water for three days before the show to prevent them from combusting on impact. As the ladles dip into the molten iron, multi-colored flames (using molten iron, copper and aluminum) shoot up instantly, so the men work quickly to splash the molten iron onto the city wall.

As the metal strikes the cold, hard wall, it explodes into a shower of sparks, mostly over the performers. The incredible scene is met with loud applause from the audience. With every ladle of hot metal the roars grow louder and the night sky glows bright under the light of the fire flowers.

Burning Man, Black Rock City, Nevada, United States

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Photo by Galen Oakes

Burning Man conjures up all kinds of outrageous images for the uninitiated: from naked New-Agers dancing till dawn to polyamorous pursuers fueled by drugs. Yes, the Playa (the desert stage location where the Man, the temple and much of the art is) is a culturally curious place, one part hedonistic, one part idealistic. But, amidst the hippies and Silicon Valley CEOs that populate this pop-up town, the common thread is an appreciation of the life-affirming nature of the artistic spirit.

And of course, there’s the elaborately designed temple, which burns on Sunday night in a solemn ceremony after the tribal, primal burning of the Man on Saturday night. There is lots of fire, including roaming bands of tribal majorettes tossing flaming batons in the air. It's all meant to give hope that we can burn and bury our baggage and allow fresh ideas, ways of living and new heroes to emerge.

Wakakusa Yamayaki, Nara, Japan

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Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

"Yamayaki" literally translates to "mountain roast" which gives you an idea of what this Japanese festival entails. Actually, in this case the term "yamayaki" is more accurately translated as "controlled burn," but where's the fun in that? We like the sound of a mountain roast, of grilling a geographic feature over an open fire, and that is more or less what two Buddhist temples and a Shinto shrine do to Mount Wakakusa (Wakakusa-yama) on the fourth Saturday of every January, weather permitting: set Wakakusa-yama on fire. For roughly an hour, the grass on the slopes blazes, as if a red hell were draped over the mountainside. When 1,122 ft of Mount Wakakusa becomes a flickering torch, the fire can be seen across the entire city of Nara.

But be patient. They only set the mountain on fire after an extensive fireworks display and a festival that involves an interfaith demonstration put on by Japan's major religions along with a parade that includes a giant rice cracker tossing competition. Natch.

Les Festes de la Merce, Barcelona, Spain

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Photo by Regis St. Louis

Barcelona’s principal festival is dedicated to its co-patron saint, the Virgin of Mercy. Yes, this is why Spain has so many fiestas; there’s a festival for every saint. Nostra Señora de la Mercè is given credit for ridding this Mediterranean city of locusts in 1687 and, then, when she was appointed commander in chief of Barcelona’s military during the War of the Spanish Succession in 1714, the fortunes of this lovely seaside city turned around overnight. Each day of the festival, which became official in 1871, is commemorated with its own parade filled with mythical characters, dancing giants and traditional drumming. There's a photogenic spectacle around every corner, from folk dancing (sardana) to human castles rising eight stories high (castellers), to parades of giant papier-mâché characters (gegandes). And of course, no Barcelona festival would be complete without tons of kids with firecrackers and fire runners (correfocs), who run 10 kilometers through the city carrying huge sparklers spitting sparks in a wide radius.

Lewes Bonfire, Lewes, England

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Photo by C. B. Creative Commons

Guy Fawke’s Day, or Bonfire Night, is traditional throughout the UK, but in Lewes the celebration reaches new heights. Every year on November 5th, Brits light bonfires and set off fireworks to remember their good luck in stumbling upon Guy Fawkes just before he attempted to blow up Parliament in 1605. Fawkes and his 12 co-conspirators plotted to assassinate King James I over increasingly repressive moves against Catholics.

In celebration of the revealed Gunpowder Plot as it was known, people began lighting bonfires and burning the conspirators in effigy. In January of 1606, Parliament declared November 5 a national day of thanksgiving, and a holiday was born. The grandeur of the plot struck such a chord with the monarchy, that to this day sentries search the cellars of Parliament before the seated regent enters the building.

Some towns took to the annual bonfires, while in others, like Lewes, the day became a reason to riot and burn random buildings. The arsonists became known as Bonfire Boys and were largely clamped down until the mid-19th century when the first two Bonfire Societies were formed, and some formalities were encoded into the Lewes' celebrations. Now Lewes is famous for holding the largest and most elaborate Bonfire Night celebrations.