St. Barbara's Day

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 Nicomedia (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.

European Customs

In Europe Barbara is associated with the cherry blossom, which symbolizes spiritual or feminine beauty. Germans, Czechs, Austrians, 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.

Further Reading

Cross, F. L., and E. A. Livingstone, eds. The Oxford Dictionary of the ChristianChurch. Second edition, revised. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1983. Delaney, John J. Dictionary of Saints. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1980. Harper, Howard. Days and Customs of All Faiths. 1957. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1990. Henderson, Helene, and Sue Ellen Thompson, eds. Holidays, Festivals, andCelebrations of the World Dictionary. Second edition. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1997. Kirsch, J. P. "St. Barbara." In Charles B. Hervermann, ed. Catholic Ency-clopedia. Nashville, Tenn.: T. Nelson, 1913. Available online at: Russ, Jennifer M. German Festivals and Customs. London, England: Oswald Wolff, 1966. Spicer, Dorothy Gladys. 46 Days of Christmas. New York: Coward-McCann, 1960. Thompson, Sue Ellen, ed. Holiday Symbols. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1998. Weiser, Francis X. Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1952.

St. Barbara's Day

Type of Holiday: Religious (Christian)
Date of Observation: December 4
Where Celebrated: Czech Republic, France, Germany, Poland, Syria, and by Christians throughout the world
Symbols and Customs: Barbara Branch, St. Barbara's Grain
Related Holidays: Christmas

ORIGINS

According to legend, St. Barbara's father, a wealthy pagan, was so afraid that his daughter would fall in love and leave him that he locked her up in a richly furnished tower. She heard about Christianity, however, and arranged to receive a visit from a Christian disciple disguised as a physician. She was eventually converted to Christianity and baptized. One day, while her father was away, she had some workmen install a third window in her tower, which only had two. When she confessed her new faith to her father, she explained that the Christian soul received its light through three windows: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. At the time, Christianity was considered a criminal offense. Her father was so angry that he took her before a judge, who sentenced her to death by beheading. One version of the story says that Barbara's father carried out the sentence himself, but was killed by lightning on his way home. Another says that he was struck by lightning just as he was about to behead her. In any case, St. Barbara today is usually represented by a tower with three windows, for which reason she is somewhat inaccurately known as the patron saint of forts and of artillerymen. She is also called upon to protect people from lightning, storms, and sudden death.

In parts of France, Germany, and Syria, St. Barbara's Day is considered the beginning of the CHRISTMAS season. In Poland, St. Barbara's Day is associated with prophecies concerning the weather. If it rains on December 4, it will be cold and icy on Christmas Day; if it's cold and icy on St. Barbara's Day, Christmas will be warmer and rainy.

The basis of saint day remembrances is found in ancient Roman tradition. On the anniversary of a death, families would share a ritual meal at the grave site of an ancestor. This practice was adopted by Christians who began observing a ritual meal on the death anniversary of ancestors in the faith, especially martyrs. As a result, most Christian saint days are associated with the death of the saint. There are three important exceptions. John the Baptist, the Virgin Mary, and Jesus are honored on their nativities (birthdays). Many who suffered martyrdom are remembered on saint days in the calendars of several Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant sects.

Because sufficient evidence for Barbara's life has not been determined, the Roman Catholic Church removed her day from the calendar of saints in 1969.

SYMBOLS AND CUSTOMS

Barbara Branch

It was customary among Czechs and Slovaks, as well as other central Europeans, to break a branch off a cherry tree on St. Barbara's Day. It was placed in a pot of water in the kitchen and kept warm. If the girl who tended the twig was successful in making it bloom on CHRISTMAS EVE, it was considered an omen that she would find a good husband within a year.

The custom of cutting a dormant branch of the flowering cherry and bringing it indoors on St. Barbara's Day in the hope that it will bloom in time for Christmas is once again regaining its popularity among western Christians. The cherry blossom is a symbol of spring as well as of spiritual or feminine beauty. The sweet fruit of the cherry symbolizes the sweetness of character that is derived from good works. In some countries, Barbara branches are cut from apple, plum, almond, forsythia, jasmine, or horse chestnut trees.

St. Barbara's Grain

In southern France, particularly Provence, it is customary to set out dishes with grains of wheat soaked in water on sunny window sills. There is a folk belief that if the "St. Barbara's grain" grows quickly, it means a good year for crops. But if it withers and dies, the crops will be ruined.

On CHRISTMAS EVE, the grain is placed near the crèche as a symbol of the coming harvest.

FURTHER READING

Barz, Brigitte. Festivals with Children. Edinburgh: Floris Books, 1987. Eliade, Mircea. The Encyclopedia of Religion. New York: Macmillan, 1987. Ferguson, George. Signs and Symbols in Christian Art. New York: Oxford University Press, 1954. Harper, Howard V. Days and Customs of All Faiths. 1957. Reprint. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1990. Henderson, Helene, ed. Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2005. Olderr, Steven. Symbolism: A Comprehensive Dictionary. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1986. Weiser, Franz Xaver. Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1958.

WEB SITE

U.S. Army's Fort Sill, Oklahoma sill-www.army.mil/pao/pabarbar.htm

St. Barbara's Day

December 4
Scholars doubt that St. Barbara existed as more than a legend that emerged during the second century. The story is that her father locked her away in a tower to prevent her from ever marrying. When she became a Christian he tried to kill her, then turned her in to the pagan authorities. Then he was killed by a bolt of lightning.
In parts of France, Germany, and Syria, St. Barbara's Day is considered the beginning of the Christmas season. In southern France, especially in Provence, it is customary to set out dishes holding grains of wheat soaked in water on sunny window sills. There is a folk belief that if the "St. Barbara's grain" grows quickly, it means a good year for crops. But if it withers and dies, the crops will be ruined. On Christmas Eve, the grain is placed near the creche as a symbol of the coming harvest. There is a similar custom in Germany and the Czech and Slovak republics, where cherry branches are placed in water and tended carefully in the hope that they will bloom on Christmas Eve. In Syria, St. Barbara's Day is for feasting and bringing food to the poor.
In Poland, St. Barbara's Day is associated with weather prophecies. If it rains, it will be cold and icy on Christmas Day; if it's cold and icy, Christmas will be rainy.
SOURCES:
BkFest-1937, p. 128
DaysCustFaith-1957, p. 305
DictFolkMyth-1984, p. 950
EncyChristmas-2003, p. 657
FestWestEur-1958, p. 49
FolkAmerHol-1999, p. 484
FolkWrldHol-1999, p. 685
OxYear-1999, p. 485
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