|St Barbara's Martyrium|
Lucas Cranach the Elder 1510-15
Metropolitan Museum of Art
So many of the legends about the Catholic Saints are bloodthirsty affairs and the life St Barbara is no exception. She is said to have lived at the end of the 3rd Century in Nikomedia, now Izmit in Turkey. Her father imprisoned her in a high tower, to discourage her many suitors. He liked it even less when she became a Christian and he had her tortured and, finally, beheaded her himself, whereupon he was instantly struck by lightning and killed. Historically, she appears a rather unlikely figure, but she is, nevertheless, one of the best known Catholic Saints.
In Germany she is mainly the patron saint of miners. Woodcarvers in the Ore Mountains (Erzgebirge) in Saxony always carve her as a companion piece to the figure of the miner. In mining villages even now miners dress in traditional uniforms on St Barbara's Day and go in procession to receive "St Barbara's Light", to protect them from danger underground.
|Ore mine Konrad (left) and Salt Mine Asse (right)|
A very pleasant one is that of the "Barbara Branch". Cut a twig of apple or cherry tree and place it in water. Leave it in a cool room and by Christmas the twigs should blossom, an omen for good luck in the new year. Even if the blossoms drop quickly, the flowering branch in the middle of a North European winter is a little miracle in itself. If you want to make absolutely sure of success, use a few forsythia twigs; a small cheat perhaps, but guaranteed to work.
Traditionally, women would cut the name of the man they hoped to marry into the wood. If the branch blossomed that meant that the chosen one loved you back. We have more direct ways today, of course, but simply asking the chap takes away the frisson of uncertainty.
This custom of bringing bare branches of apple and cherry wood into the house might even be one of the precursors to the Christmas tree. In Franconia, in the 18th Century, the flowering branches were decorated with sweet stuffs, nuts and fruit for children, a kind of poor man's Christmas tree perhaps.