POPULATION: About 9 million
LANGUAGE: Dutch; Flemish; French; German
RELIGION: Roman Catholicism; smaller numbers of Muslims and Jews
The history of the Belgian people has made them strong and resourceful. For centuries their land was invaded and occupied by different groups, including the Romans, French, Burgundians, Spanish, Austrian, and Germans. In 58 BC , the Roman leader Julius Caesar called the region's Belgae tribes the toughest opponents he had faced. Some of history's major battles were fought in this small country. They include the Battle of Waterloo that signaled the downfall of the French ruler Napoleon Bonaparte (1769–1821), and the Battle of the Bulge in World War II (1939–45). Although it was always recognized as a distinct region, Belgium did not become a nation until 1831. Today, Belgium's capital, Brussels, serves as headquarters for major international organizations, including the European Community (EC) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
Located in northwestern Europe, Belgium is one of the "low countries" (much of its land is at or below sea level). This small country is about as large as the state of Maryland. Belgium's major geographic divisions are the coastal lowlands, the central plain, and the high plateau of the Ardennes.
Belgium's two major population groups are the Flemish and the Walloons. They live side by side but maintain sharply separate ethnic identities. The Walloons were long considered the dominant group. Their region had most of the nation's industries, and their French cultural roots were considered an advantage. However, since World War II (1939–45), the northern Flemish region (Flanders) has gained an economic advantage through the growth of commerce. The Flemish have also grown more numerous than the Walloons.
Belgium has three official languages: French, German, and Flemish, which is similar to Dutch. Highway signs indicate the names of cities in two languages (for example, Brussels/Bruxelles, Luik/Liège, Bergen/Mons). The Flemish and the French-speaking Walloons have had many conflicts over language-use in schools, courts, business, and government.
Many of Belgium's colorful festivals are based on local myths. One is the famous Cat Festival of Ypres. According to legend, medieval Ypres was overrun by rats, and cats were brought in to kill them. But the cats multiplied too fast, and people took to throwing them off the tops of buildings. (Today this action is imitated during the festival with toy cats.) Folklore also surrounds Belgium's traditional puppet theater, whose marionettes are based on characters from the tales of their particular cities.
Belgium is a mostly Catholic country. In 1993 about 86 percent of the population was Roman Catholic. Belgian Catholics are usually baptized and receive a religious education. However, many do not actively take part in other religious practices. Some only remain members of the church because of its link with many of the nation's social services. Beauraing and Banneaux in Wallonia are popular destinations for pilgrimages (religious journeys).
Belgium's legal holidays are New Year's Day (January 1), Easter Monday (March or April), Labor Day (May 1), Independence Day (July 21), All Saints' Day (November 1), and Christmas (December 25). Another important day is the Anniversary of the Battle of the Golden Spurs on July 11.
In addition to these official holidays, Belgians love festivals of all kinds. One of the most famous is the Shrove Tuesday Carnival in the town of Binche, with its "March of the Gilles." On this Tuesday before Ash Wednesday (the beginning of Lent), men dress in padded, brightly colored costumes and white hats adorned with enormous ostrich plumes. They dance down the street throwing oranges at the spectators, who are also pelted with bags filled with water. Anyone who throws oranges back at the marchers risks being beaten up by the other townspeople.
Rites of passage include major Catholic ceremonies such as baptism, first communion, marriage and funerals. Special gifts are given for baptisms, first communions, and marriages.
When relatives greet each other, they shake hands, hug, or kiss each other on the cheek. Friends usually hug. Men and women or two female friends might exchange kisses on the cheek. American-style "high fives" (slapping each other's hands held high in the air) have become popular among Belgian youth.
The languages of both the Flemings and the Walloons have formal and informal modes of addressing another person. Both groups tend to use the informal forms ( jÿ in Dutch, and tu in French) more often than do the Dutch in Holland or the French in France.
Belgium has no significant housing shortage and few slums. In many Belgian homes, part of the first floor is used for the family business. Common terms for this arrangement include winkelshuis (shop house) and handelshuis (business residence). Many houses have large kitchens in which closely knit Belgian families can gather.
Men and women usually marry in their teens and twenties and begin their families early. Most families have between two and four children. Married couples often work side by side in either business or farming.
Instead of divorcing, couples who are in business together may remain legally married in order to protect the business, maintaining separate households with new partners. Children generally live with their parents until they marry. The elderly are commonly cared for in homes run by religious or social organizations. Women make up roughly 40 percent of the work force.
Belgians, especially those in the cities, wear modern Western-style clothes. Men who work in offices are expected to wear suit jackets to work. It is generally acceptable for women to wear slacks to work. The ethnic costumes of the Flemings and Walloons are seldom worn today. On some farms women still wear the traditional dark-colored clothing and white aprons, and men wear the old-fashioned caps.
Belgium is known for its rich, tasty food—the Belgians' daily consumption of calories is among the world's highest. Two of the best-known dishes are carbonades of beef (stewed in beer), and a chicken or fish chowder called waterzooi. The North Sea and Atlantic Ocean supply many varieties of fish. The daily catch also includes eels, cockles, and mussels, all of which are considered delicacies. Other Belgian specialties include waffles, over 300 varieties of beer, and chocolate.
Belgium has an unusually high literacy rate. Education is required between the ages of six and fifteen. (Nearly all children start earlier with nursery school and kindergarten.) Depending on the region, classes may be taught in either French, Dutch, or German. Belgium has eight major universities, including institutions in Brussels, Ghent, Liège, and Antwerp.
Belgium's cultural heritage includes the paintings of Pieter Breugel the Elder (c. 1515 or 1530–69), Jan van Eyck (1395–1441), and Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640), and the music compositions of Orlando di Lasso (1532–94) and César Franck (1822–90). Modern Belgians writers include the Nobel Prize-winning dramatist Maurice Maeterlinck (1862–1949), and the popular detective novelist Georges Simenon (1903–89), who was born in Liège. Prominent modern painters include expressionist James Ensor (1860–1949) and surrealist René Magritte (1898–1967).
Belgians put in long hours at work. A businessperson who arrives at the office at 9:00 AM is considered lazy. In recent years, industrial jobs have increased in the north (in the Flemish region). Jobs in service industries like tourism have also expanded. However, small family businesses are still common, and farmers grow vegetables, fruit, and grains. Commercial fishing and fish processing are important in cities near the North Sea.
The most popular participant sport in Belgium is bicycling. Belgians also participate in and watch soccer, and there are many regional teams. Other sports popular in Belgium include tennis, horseback riding, hiking, and skiing.
Belgians also enjoy the popular European sport of sand sailing. A sort of minicar with sails called a "sand yacht" is driven along the coast, powered by the wind. Also popular, especially in Wallonia, is pigeon racing. As many as 100,000 pigeons may be entered in a single race.
Like many other Europeans, Belgians are avid soccer fans. There are over sixty teams in the national league. Concerts and theater are popular evening pastimes in the cities, and Brussels also has opera, ballet, and cafe cabarets (restaurants with musical entertainment such as singing and dancing).
Traditional Belgian crafts include lacemaking (for which Brussels is especially famous), tapestry, glass, and pottery. Other folk arts include folk opera and street singing, as well as marionettes (small wooden figures operated with strings) and hand puppets. Popular hobbies include stamp collecting, model trains, and gardening.
Ethnic differences between Belgium's Flemings and Walloons have been sources of social conflict. Religious divisions have also caused tension within the country. Social problems include unemployment, high rates of immigration, gradually increasing crime, and the high taxes needed to support Belgium's generous system of social benefits.
Egan, E. W. Belgium in Pictures. Minneapolis: Lerner, 1991.
Hargrove, Jim. Belgium, Enchantment of the World. Chicago: Children's Press, 1988.
Pateman, Robert. Belgium. New York: Marshall Cavendish, 1995.