On a cold night in February, we headed to the North Frisian village of Risum-Lindholm, in northwest Germany. As we rode into town, it seemed quiet and asleep, but as we turned the last corner before our destination, the faint glow of a bonfire and the silhouettes of people standing around it appeared in the distance. As we got closer, the impressive height of the bonfire became clear as well: the size of five men tall. A straw doll placed on top, once symbolizing the Pope, was just about to be absorbed by the flames.
Every February 21, on the eve of feast of the Chair of St. Peter—or Paadersdäi as it is known in the Frisian variety spoken around Risum-Lindholm—people light huge bonfires throughout North Frisia. In the days and weeks prior, the locals cut back the trees and bushes around their homesteads and pile up the waste for the bonfire. At night, they gather around the fire with friends and family, while enjoying a warm cup of teepunsch, a weak tea mixed with Köm, a type of liquor specific to northern Germany.
North Frisia is a linguistic area in Schleswig-Holstein, the most northern state of Germany. Along the coastline and on the islands of the district, some 5,000 to 7,000 people speak the severely endangered North Frisian language. North Frisian is a West-Germanic language, very closely related to English. Despite its small number of speakers, it still subdivides into ten different dialects, one of which has not been spoken since the 1980s. Of the dialects that are still in use, Fering-Öömrang, spoken on the islands of Föhr and Amrum, has some active younger speakers. Mooring, spoken on the mainland in and around Risum-Lindholm, is still spoken in several homes.
Nowadays, the biikebrennen, as the bonfire tradition is called, is regarded as the most important regional festival, but this has not always been the case.
The origins are unclear, and several stories still circulate about its early days. According to popular belief, biikebrennen is said to date back several centuries with roots in pagan celebrations for the Germanic god, Wodan. The fire is supposed to chase away evil spirits and protect seedlings in the upcoming season. In this interpretation, it marks the end of winter and the beginning of a new spring.
Another interpretation is that the biikebrennen was part of the farewell ceremonies held on the North Frisian islands and along the coast for departing fishermen, especially whalers. According to a public safety decree issued in the beginning of the fifteenth century, all navigation ships should stay ashore between St. Martin’s Day (November 11) and the feast of the Chair of St. Peter (February 22). As the fishermen were setting sail after their winter break, their wives would light fire beacons on the beach to wish them a safe return.
Despite their popularity, neither explanation is supported by historical evidence. In the words of Nordfriisk Instituut director Christoph Schmidt, the theories are “großer Blödsinn,” or complete nonsense. He argues that the biikebrennen tradition, as celebrated today, is only some 200 years old. In the early nineteenth century, he claims, local historian Christian Peter Hansen of the North Frisian island of Sylt played a crucial role in spreading the false but popular interpretations.
Historical evidence shows that by the end of the nineteenth century, the big bonfires we see today replaced the primitive beacons consisting of a tin on a stick. Around the same time, the date for the biikebrennen was fixed on February 21. Before then, the date was flexible, as long as it came before the beginning of Lent, due to the celebratory nature of the festival.
While it had nearly disappeared on the mainland in the course of the twentieth century, the festival was still celebrated on the island of Sylt. However, in the 1970s, biikebrennen regained widespread popularity, along a general revival of regional cultural heritage. The historical claims supporting its supposed long-lasting ties to earlier times may have been one reason why it was eagerly picked up and became a widespread custom again. In 2014, it was even officially recognized as intangible cultural heritage in Germany.
The renewed interest in the biikebrennen tradition went hand-in-hand with a rise in interest in the Frisian language. Although it failed to gain traction when first introduced on the island of Sylt in the early twentieth century, from the 1970s onward, there was a steady incline of Frisian language programs offered at schools, and their impact intensified. As our current study shows, most pupils of that time really enjoyed the language classes. Now in adulthood, they have fond memories of the classes and their Frisian teachers. In fact, this may have been contributed quite crucially to the positive attitude toward Frisian, which is so strongly articulated today, by speakers as well as by non-speakers.
That attitude extends to Frisian cultural traditions. All debates of the origins of the biikebrennen aside, it is now first and foremost a community celebration that is warmly treasured by the North Frisians. During the day of February 21, schools in and around Risum-Lindholm organize a special celebration for the children. Delegations from surrounding schools assemble at that year’s host school, and the children put on performances. Some recite Frisian poetry, others sing Frisian songs, and last year, the students of the Frisian-Danish school Risem Schölj offered a smashing multilingual (German-Frisian-Danish) piece of theater. The celebration was, of course, concluded with a mini-biike in the schoolyard.
At night, it is the adults’ turn. After the burning of the big biike, the crowds assemble in the local gaststätte, or inn, to warm themselves over a bowl of hot kale soup. The local amateur theater group, Rökefloose, entertains their fellow townspeople with hilarious plays, full of jokes about the quirks of neighboring villages.
The daytime and nighttime activities are all about a community getting together and having a good time. Whether this tradition is only 200 years old or much older seems of little importance. The main treasure is that it is so deeply rooted in the community and so valued by all North Frisians. As such, whether reinvented or not, biikebrennen is a tradition worth cherishing.
Femmy Admiraal is a linguist and anthropologist who was raised bilingually in West Frisian and Dutch. She works at DANS, the archiving institution of the Royal Dutch Academy of Science, and was a co-investigator for the North Frisian language case study of the Smithsonian SMiLE project.
SMiLE Research Awards are sponsored by the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage with funding from Ferring Pharmaceuticals Inc.