Thursday, December 3, 2009

Barbaratag!

December 4th is the feast day of Saint Barbara who, according to Wikipedia, was martyred in the 3rd century in the region of the modern-day Turkish city of İzmit. The daughter of a wealthy Roman family or even a princess according to some versions of the legend, Saint Barbara is believed to have been brutally tortured - for the gruesome details, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint_Barbara - and executed at the behest of her own father. As punishment, he was struck by lightning and burned to death. Presumably because of this element of her story, Saint Barbara is seen as the patron saint of those working with explosives, including artillerymen, military engineers, and miners. In addition, she is the patron saint of masons and mathematicians and is considered one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers, to be invoked especially against fire and lightning. Source: Japanese flowering cherry by Petr Kratochvil

Despite Saint Barbara's violent tale, the reason her feast day merits a blog post is quite cheerful. In Germany, it is a long-standing tradition to cut some small branches of a spring-flowering tree or shrub on this day, commonly called Barbaratag or "Day of Barbara". These branches, called Barbarazweige or "Twigs of Barbara", are brought into the house and put in a vase filled with water in a warm room. If all goes as planned, the branches will flower by Christmas, foreshadowing the beauty of spring and symbolizing the miracle of the birth of Christ. The most traditional plant species used for this custom are edible and ornamental cherries (Prunus sp.) as well as other members of the genus Prunus but one may also try apple branches (Malus sp.), hazel (Corylus avellana),and even fosythias (Forsythia sp.). In fact, branches of the latter are probably the most reliable bloomers, since their dormancy is easily broken.

Source: Japanese flowering cherry by Petr Kratochvil
According to legend, the tradition of the Barbarazweig came about because on her way to prison, Barbara's dress got caught on a branch which broke of the shrub as a result. Barbara took the branch and placed it in water, and it began to flower on the day she was condemned to death. On a happier note, the flowering of the Barbarazweige by Christmas is considered auspicious, and in times gone by girls in some regions used to tie labels with the names of possible suitors to their various branches. It was believed that the first branch to flower would thus reveal a girl's future groom.
If you have access a cherry tree or some other spring-flowering shrubs or trees, I would encourage you to cut some branches... I think it is a beautiful tradition, particularly for those of us who miss the flowers of the garden already when winter has barely begun. This year getting the branches to flower might be a bit more difficult for those in much of the Northeast in the country as well as Western Europe, since fall has been quite mild and it is generally assumed that it aids the flowering of the branches if they have been exposed already to a proper bout of frost. Nevertheless, I think it is an experiment well worth trying.

1 comment:

  1. Hi, I enjoyed your post for a special reason: my name is Barbara and I live in Germany. I learned about the Barbaratag custom when I first came here and my German mother-in-law gave me some Barbarazweige on December 4. What a lovely custom, and a great informative post. You're right, it might be hard to get them to blossom this year - we've been having temperatures around 10 degrees C here in Mannheim throughout November. But I'm going to try and will post my results.

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