AMMAN, Jordan — Although there are different versions of the
story of St. Barbara, Christians in the Middle East and Central Europe still
celebrate the early Christian martyr each Dec. 4.
To celebrate St. Barbara's Day, known as "Eid
il-Burbara," Christians in Jordan, Syria and Lebanon prepare and share a
dessert made from boiled wheat, rose water, cinnamon, anise and nuts. This
aromatic sweet represents the wheat fields where St. Barbara hid from her
father, who kept her locked in a tower because she had converted to Christianity
in A.D. 235. Middle Eastern Christians believe that, before her death, St.
Barbara escaped her tower prison, and freshly planted wheat fields miraculously
rose up around her, concealing her path.
"Often we make this special dish and share it with our
family and bring it to our friends," Munir Bayouk told Catholic News
Service. Bayouk works with the Catholic Center for Studies and Media in the
After years of war and political instability in neighboring
Lebanon, celebrations of the feast of St. Barbara grew a bit more subdued, but
shouts of "Hay-shlee Ba-bar-a!" ("Run away, Barbara!") are
still heard on the Dec. 3 eve of the feast day.
Lebanese and Syrians take the celebration a step further, with
children dressing up in costumes to commemorate St. Barbara's flight, creating
a Halloween-type disguise. Pumpkins and gourds also are used as decorations. In
modern times, it's mainly children who participate, dressing up in masks and
costumes to knock on neighborhood doors in search of money and candy.
"We've been celebrating 'Eid iI-Burbara' since we were kids,
and it is such a fun time," Lebanese psychologist Rima Karam told Catholic
News Service. "Children disguise themselves and go from house to house and
sing songs for Barbara. People give them money as a treat.
"I liked it as a little girl because we used to collect
money from the neighbors," Karam added with a laugh.
St. Barbara's feast marks the beginning of the Christmas
decorating season for Lebanese Christians. Lebanese families also plant wheat
grains, lentils, chickpeas and other legumes with the idea that in three weeks,
the sprouts will be plentiful, accenting the Nativity scene under the Christmas
There are different versions of St. Barbara's story. Legend says
she was the beautiful daughter of a rich and powerful pagan man — some records
say in Egypt, others in Turkey. When her father locked her in the tower, she
had a window installed made as a symbol of the Trinity. During her time of
imprisonment, St. Barbara kept a branch from a cherry tree, which she watered
from her cup. On Dec. 4, when her father decapitated her for refusing to
renounce Christianity and for rejecting an arranged marriage, the cherry branch
Ever since, believers take cherry branches into their homes Dec.
4. If the "Barbara branch" blooms on Christmas, it is considered to
bring good fortune. This custom recalls the prophesy in the Old Testament book
of Isaiah: The Messiah will spring from the root of Jesse. Christians
expectantly await Jesus Christ during Advent, and he will blossom or be born at
From this tradition comes "Barbarazweig," the German
and Austrian custom of taking branches into the house Dec. 4 with hopes of a
bloom on Christmas. In Central Europe, it is believed that the blooming branch
signals a promise of marriage in the year ahead.
Many artists' renditions depict St. Barbara in the tower, holding
a chalice or the palm of martyrdom. Some show her with wheat.
Her conduct in the face of persecution and death is seen as a
symbol of an unwavering faith and of the determination to defend it, which is
why St. Barbara is called upon as an intercessor against thunderstorms, fire
risks, fever, the plague and sudden death in general. She is the patron saint
of miners and artillery soldiers, and she is also invoked by young, unmarried
girls to pick the right husband for them.
The feast of St. Barbara was removed during the 1969 revision of
the General Roman Calendar, but is celebrated in various regions.
Families in France's Provence region germinate wheat on beds of
wet cotton in three separate saucers, keeping them moist throughout Advent.
When the contents of the three saucers — which symbolize the three persons of
the Trinity — are green, they are used to decorate the creche, usually placed
under the Christmas tree.
The French saying is "Quand le ble va bien, tout va
bien." or "When the wheat goes well, everything goes well."