The patron saint of miners, artillerymen and firemen, die Heilige Barbara (Saint Barbara), has lent her name to an interesting Germanic Christmas custom that surely has its roots (literally) in pre-Christian pagan times. But the legend of her martyrdom seems to have originated around the 7th century. Officially, Barbara is one of the 14 Auxiliary Saints or Holy Helpers. Whether she ever existed as a historical person or not has never been established. If she did exist, legend places her martyrdom during the reign of “emperor Maximianus and Prefect Marcien,” which would put her demise between 286 and 305.
Die Heilige Barbara – The Legend and the Custom
The feast day of Saint Barbara is December 4th, and it is this date that plays a key role in the interesting custom that bears the name of this virgin martyr. According to legend, Barbara lived in Asia Minor in what is today Turkey. Her father was the pagan emperor Dioscorus, a suspicious, untrusting fellow who persecuted Christians and kept his daughter a virgin by locking her up in a tower whenever he was away.
One day upon returning home, Dioscorus noticed that the tower where he kept his daughter under lock and key now had three windows instead of two. Puzzled, he asked her why she had added a window in his absence. Barbara then made the mistake of confessing that she had become a Christian, and the three windows represented the trinity of her new faith. Incensed, her father demanded that she renounce this heresy. After some time had passed and she still stubbornly refused to deny her new religion, her father commanded that she be tortured and beheaded. Immediately following this gruesome event, Dioscorus was struck dead by lightning – which may explain why St. Barbara is often invoked during thunderstorms.
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The four weeks leading up to Christmas
Another important element of the Barbara-Legende concerns her imprisonment, and led (so they say) to the Christmas custom that bears her name. Depressed and alone in her cell, Barbara found a dried up cherry tree branch which she moistened daily with a few drops from her drinking water. She was greatly consoled by the beautiful cherry blossoms that appeared just days before her impending execution.
The Barbara Branch Custom
Traditionally in the German-speaking countries, particularly in Austria and the Catholic regions of Germany, a small cherry branch is cut off and placed in water on December 4th, Barbaratag (St. Barbara’s Day). Sometimes a shoot from some other flowering plant or tree may be used: apple, forsythia, plum, lilac, or similar blossoms. But it is the cherry tree that is most customary and authentic. This custom is known as Barbarazweig.
The cherry branch (Kirschzweig) or other cutting is then placed in water and kept in a warm room. If all goes well, on Christmas day the twig will display blossoms. If it blooms precisely on December 25th, this is regarded as a particularly good sign for the future.
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