LOCATION: The Netherlands
LANGUAGE: Dutch; Frisian; English; French; German
RELIGION: Protestant; Mennonite
The Frisians live in Friesland, one of the Netherlands' northern provinces. They value their independence as a unique ethnic group. Friesland is the only province of the Netherlands to retain its own language. Like the other low-lying parts of the Netherlands, Friesland struggles to protect its land from flooding. It owes its existence to dikes (artificially constructed mounds of earth) extending the length of the coastline, and to windmills—the most famous of Dutch symbols—that drain the land.
Under the Treaty of Utrecht, in 1579, Friesland joined with the six other northern provinces, including Holland, to form the "Seven United Provinces," the forerunner of the modern Netherlands. Friesland maintained a high degree of regional autonomy (independence) within the union. Friesland became part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands established at the Congress of Vienna in 1814.
Friesland is one of the northernmost provinces of the Netherlands. It is bounded on the west, southwest, and north by water, and on the east and south by other provinces. It has an area of 1,297 square miles (3,357 square kilometers), most of it below sea level. This land was reclaimed from the sea about 2,000 years ago. There is a continuing struggle against storms and flooding. In addition to the waters of its long coastline, Friesland has some thirty inland lakes. Friesland's population is approximately 600,000 people. Most Frisians live their entire lives in Friesland, but some have migrated to other parts of the Netherlands as well as to Germany, Denmark, and North America.
Dutch is the official language in Friesland, as in the rest of the Netherlands. About half of Friesland's 600,000 residents speak both Dutch and Frisian. Frisian is a Germanic language similar to both Dutch and English. Most Frisian speakers use the language at home, and speak Dutch in the workplace and other public settings. It is also common to combine the two languages into a hybrid (mixture) called "town Frisian." Many Netherlanders—including Frisians—speak (or at least understand) English, French, and German, all taught in the secondary schools. The fishing village of Hindelopen is unusual in that it has its own dialect. With a population of 900, it is believed to be the smallest town in the world to publish its own dictionary.
Friesland has a large body of folklore that has survived from pre-Christian times. Popular tales and superstitions feature a variety of devils, ghosts, witches, elves, wizards, and trolls. There are also female spirits who either help or harm travelers. According to a popular folk belief, funeral processions should follow a winding path to confuse the spirit of the deceased so it will not be able to return and haunt the living. For the same reason, the coffin is traditionally carted around the cemetery three times before being buried.
"The Seven Wishes" is a traditional Frisian folktale. The story is set in a time when the land was populated by Little People, including an old fisherman named Jan and his wife, Tryn. One day Jan caught a magic silver fish that promised him seven wishes, on condition that he choose wisely. The humble fisherman's only desire was for a new boat because his old one was about to fall apart. However, his wife got carried away by greed, demanding a new house, furnishings, servants, and other luxuries. Finally, she demanded absolute power, and the fish took away everything it had given them. The old woman learned her lesson. The couple realized that what truly mattered to each of them was the other, and they contentedly returned to their modest existence.
Protestantism is the majority religion in Friesland. About 85 percent of Frisians belong to one of two Calvinist churches—the Dutch Reformed Church, or the Reformed Church. Five percent of Frisians are Mennonites. Some Frisians still hold certain pre-Christian beliefs (called byleauwe ). These date back to the period before the introduction of Christianity to Friesland by the Franks (a Germanic tribe) in the eighth and ninth centuries AD .
Frisians observe the Dutch legal holidays: New Year's Day (January 1), the Queen's birthday (April 30), Memorial Day (May 4), National Liberation Day (May 5), and Christmas (December 25–26). They also observe other standard holidays of the Christian calendar, including Good Friday, Holy Saturday, Easter Monday, Ascension, and Whitmonday. Easter is considered an especially important holiday. It is observed with a special dinner and an Easter egg hunt similar to those in the United States. The Queen's birthday is another important occasion, marked by flag displays and parades. On this day girls wear orange ribbons in their hair in honor of the royal family, the House of Orange. Frisians, like other Dutch people, observe Christmas by attending church services. In the Netherlands, the gift-giving that people in other countries associate with Christmas takes place on December 6. This day is devoted to St. Nicholas ( Sinterklaes, the Dutch equivalent of Santa Claus). According to tradition, St. Nicholas and his helper, called Black Peter, sail to the Netherlands from Spain to give children candy and other gifts.
Frisians live in a modern, industrialized, Christian country. Hence, many of the rites of passage that young people undergo are religious rituals. These include baptism, first communion, confirmation, and marriage. In addition, many families mark a student's progress through the education system with graduation parties.
The shared perpetual struggle against the sea has given Frisians a strong sense of community. This is expressed in the concept of buorreplicht (neighbor's duty). Helping one's neighbors in times of trouble was so necessary to survival that it was actually a formal law under emperor Charlemagne (742–814) in the Middle Ages (AD 768–814). The sense of communal responsibility has survived as a tradition. Relations with one's neighbors have even more importance than kinship (family ties) in holding Frisian communities together. Like their neighbors in the northern province of Groningen, Frisians tend to be seen as unsophisticated by Netherlanders living in the southern part of the country.
The traditional old-fashioned Frisian farm house consists of modest-sized living quarters. These are connected to a barn by a narrow section containing a kitchen, milk cellar, and butter-churning area. The living quarters are generally divided into an all-purpose family room and a formal parlor where visitors are received. Tile roofs have largely replaced the older thatched roofs.
The nuclear family—called the gezin— plays a central role in Dutch life. However, there has been an increase in the number of unmarried couples living together since 1950. This trend, known as "homing," is as common in Friesland as in other regions. The divorce rate for Frisians is also similar to that elsewhere in the Netherlands, as is the growing number of single-parent families. Instead of the elaborate church weddings of the past, many Frisians today have a civil (nonreligious) wedding. The average age at marriage has risen. More young people are choosing to complete their higher education before starting a family.
Like other Dutch people, the Frisians wear modern Western-style clothing for both casual and formal occasions. One difference, however, is their preference for wooden shoes. They wear the modern variety, made of lightweight poplar (a kind of wood) and generally painted black with leather trim.
Frisians prefer wholesome, simply prepared food, often cooked in butter. Dietary staples include seafood and dairy products, including the world-famous Dutch cheeses like gouda and edam. Desserts are often served with whipped cream, and popular beverages include tea, coffee, and beer. The Frisians eat a typical Dutch breakfast of sliced bread, meat, and cheese. Lunch generally consists of bread with jam and butter, cold meat, and buttermilk. A large dinner, served at about 6:00 PM , typically includes soup and a main dish containing meat and vegetables. French fries (patat frites) —typically served with mayonnaise or ketchup—are popular snacks, as are waffles smothered in whipped cream or caramel sauce.
As in the rest of the Netherlands, students in Friesland must attend school from the ages of six to sixteen. The Frisian language is taught in the public schools, but not in the Christian private schools. At the age of twelve, all Dutch students take an exam that qualifies them for either a general, a pre-university, or a vocational school. At the age of sixteen, they take school certificate exams in a variety of subjects. There are no universities in Friesland, but higher education is offered at eight Dutch universities and five technical institutes.
Friesland has enjoyed relative autonomy (self-rule) for much of its history. This has given its people a strong sense of ethnic and cultural identity, reinforced by the preservation of their language, folklore, and folk art.
The town of Franeker houses the world's oldest planetarium, built in the 1770s by Eise Eisenga in his own home. Eisenga's model accurately demonstrates the movement of the planets (except for Uranus, which had not been discovered yet). It has needed only minor adjustments since it was built over 200 years ago.
The economy of Friesland is based primarily on agriculture. Many Frisians living in inland areas work on small family farms, raising crops or dairy cattle. The dairy products, construction, and tourist industries are also important employers.
Popular sports in Friesland include cycling, sailing, canoeing, and ice skating. Friesland is also home to the famous Elfstedentocht skating race, held once every five or six years, when it is cold enough for all the region's canals to freeze over. As many as 20,000 people skate a 125-mile (200-kilo-meter) course over the frozen canals connecting Friesland's eleven towns. Another traditional sport popular in Friesland is fierljeppen , pole-vaulting across the canals in the warmer months.
Frisians enjoy spending much of their leisure time outdoors. Favorite activities include camping, hiking, and a variety of sports. One pastime unique to Friesland is wadlopen ("mudwalking") across the salt flats and mud of the shallow Waddenzee at low tide. This unusual activity provides vigorous exercise as well as an opportunity for birdwatching. Wadlopen is often undertaken in organized group outings. Socializing at the weekly livestock market in Tjouwert serves as informal recreation for many Frisians.
Frisian craftspeople are renowned for their tile work, pottery, and embroidery. Friesland is also noted for the unique folk art that goes into the creation of ûlebuorden (owl boards). These are elaborately decorated barn gables that include carved swans. They have holes through which owls can fly in and out of the barn. Once a functional creation, ûlebuorden are now considered decorative artifacts.
Frisians experience many of the social problems found in all modern, industrialized countries, such as increasing drug use among young people and rising incidence of crime.
Catling, Christopher, ed. The Netherlands. Insight Guides. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1991.
Gall, Timothy, and Susan Gall, ed. Worldmark Encyclopedia of the Nations. Detroit: Gale Research, 1995.
Gratton, Nancy E. "Frisians." Encyclopedia of World Cultures. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1992.
Mahmood, Cynthia Keppley. Frisian and Free: Study of an Ethnic Minority of the Netherlands. Prospect Heights, Ill.: Waveland Press, 1989.
Spicer, Dorothy Gladys. The Owl's Nest: Folktales from Friesland. New York: Coward-McCann, 1968.
Van Stegeren, Theo. The Land and People of the Netherlands. New York: HarperCollins, 1991.