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Discover DE: Biikebrennen in North Frisia

The series “Discover DE” takes a journey across Germany: this time to North Frisia and the traditional Biikebrennen.

© dpa/nordphoto - Biikebrennen

When an item on UNESCO’s Cultural Heritage List bursts into flames, this can mean only one thing: the time of the Biikebrennen has come in North Frisia. On the eve of 21 February, more than 60 Biiken, or bonfires, will be lit on the islands of Sylt, Amrum und Föh and along the North Frisian coast. “Biiki” is the North Frisian word for “beacon”, hence fire signal. Firefighters pile heaps of large pieces of wood and brushwood on the beaches. Sometimes a straw man is perched atop the stacks, the “Pider” or “little Peter”, a symbol of the winter to be cast out. After calling “Tjen di Biiki ön” (“Light the beacon!”), the blaze is visible from far and wide. Usually, fiery speeches in Frisian accompany the ritual – for example, on current political issues. Afterwards, the participants often repair for a common meal of kale.

Biikebrennen belongs to UNESCO’s List of Intangible Cultural Heritage

In December 2014 UNESCO put the Biikebrennen on its List of Intangible Cultural Heritage. Its aim was thus to preserve the tradition for posterity. The custom of the fire ritual goes back to 1740, but its roots probably go farther back still. As chroniclers report, in the eighteenth century sailors gathered every year on 22 February to discuss their embarkation from the major ports and conclude employment contracts for the new fishing season. From this the tradition developed around 1830 that sailors leaving for whaling bade farewell to their wives with a bonfire. At the end of the nineteenth century, this North Frisian national holiday was fixed on 21 February. Here lies the origin of the modern Biike tradition. In the 1970s, the fire ritual was sparked to new life by a reawakened North Frisian regional consciousness. Today it annually attracts visitors to North Frisia.