St. Barbara’s Day
In parts of FRANCE, GERMANY, SYRIA, and LEBANON the CHRISTMAS SEASON opens on St. Barbara’s Day, December 4. Scholars now believe that St. Barbara never existed. Moreover, the Roman Catholic Church eliminated her feast day in 1969. Nevertheless, many people continue to enjoy the folk customs connected with the saint.
LEGEND OF ST. BARBARA
According to legend, Barbara lived in a city of Asia Minor called Nic-omedia (currently Izmit) sometime between the second and fourth centuries. Her father kept her shut up in a tower in order to shield her from outside influences. Somehow she developed a strong interest in Christianity. When her father was away, she installed three windows, representing the Holy Trinity, in the bath he was building for her. When he returned she confessed that she was a Christian.
Upon hearing this news her father flew into a rage and beat her. When she persisted in her faith against his wishes, he turned her over to the authorities. They sentenced her to death, since Christianity was still illegal at that time. Barbara’s father resolved to carry out the sentence himself. In one version of the story he beheaded her and was struck by lightning on his way home. In another version the lightning kills him before he can behead his daughter.
Christians venerated Barbara as a saint from as early as the seventh century A.D. Many artists depicted her standing in front of a tower with three windows. She became the special patron of miners, forts, and artillerymen, as well as the patron of builders and architects. The role of lightning in her story, as well as her improvement of, and later imprisonment in, a tower, may have suggested these connections. People have also invoked the saint to protect them against lightning, storms, and sudden death.
In Europe Barbara is associated with the cherry blossom, which symbolizes spiritual or feminine beauty. Germans, Czechs, Austri-ans, Poles, and other central and eastern Europeans begin Barbara branches on December 4. CHERRY TREE branches are broken off and kept in a pot of water near the stove. This premature warmth encourages the branch to blossom. If the buds blossom on Christmas Eve, then the girl who tended the branch will find a good husband within the year. Others interpret the flowers as signs that good fortune will visit the household. This old custom has regained some popularity among Western Christians. Instead of cherry branches, some people use apple, plum, almond, forsythia, jasmine, or horse chestnut branches.
MIDDLE EASTERN CUSTOMS
In Syria and Lebanon, Christians celebrate St. Barbara’s Day with feasting and alms-giving. Parents often throw a special party for their children. They prepare special sweet dishes and set them on a table illuminated with candles. Wheat plays a double role in the composition of these treats, both as a main ingredient and as a symbol of the
soul’s immortality. Often, a family member or friend dons a white robe and crown in order to play the role of St. Barbara at the feast. When all is ready she ushers the children into the room and leads them in singing and other activities. The children may also bring these treats to the homes of needy families. They greet the household with the following sentiment: “May God bless you and bring you happiness throughout the year. Father and mother beg you to accept these GIFTS from us.” Some children in these countries celebrate St. Barbara’s Day with masquerades. Wearing rags and frightening masks, they knock on doors in their neighborhood and ask for “blessings.” Householders respond by giving them candy, coins, or candles.
WEATHER AND CROP LORE
Weather and crop lore have also attached themselves to St. Barbara’s Day. In southern France, especially Provence, an old custom advises that dishes of water-soaked grain be placed on sunny windowsills on this day. If the “St. Barbara’s grain” sprouts and grows, crops will flourish in the coming year. If the seeds in the little dish die, then crops will fail. After performing this test some people put St. Barbara’s grain in their NATIVITY SCENE to represent the coming harvest. In POLAND people watch the weather on St. Barbara’s Day. Rain on December fourth means that cold and ice will arrive by Christmas Day. Cold and ice on St. Barbara’s Day foretells a warm, rainy Christmas.