Today is the feast day of Saint Barbara, (santa Barbara), venerated in both eastern and western churches as a saint and martyr. Accounts place her in the 3rd century in Nicomedia, in present day Turkey or in Heliopolis in Egypt. There is no reference to her in authentic early Christian writings, nor in the oldest version of Saint Jerome’s martyrology. Her name can be traced only to the 7th century, but veneration of her was common, especially in the East, from the 9th century. Because of doubts about the historicity of her legend, she was removed from the liturgical calendar of the Roman Rite in 1969 in Pope Paul VI’s motu proprio Mysterii Paschalis, which eliminated a host of saints, many of whom, like Barbara, were widely venerated.
Saint Barbara is often portrayed with miniature chains and a tower. As one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers, Barbara continues to be a popular saint in modern times, despite the pope’s injunction. She is best known as the patron saint of armorers, artillerymen/women, military engineers, miners and others who work with explosives, because of her old legend’s association with lightning. She is also patron of mathematicians.
According to the hagiographies Barbara was the daughter of a rich pagan named Dioscorus who kept her locked up in a tower in order to preserve her from the outside world. Having secretly become a Christian, she rejected an offer of marriage that she received through him. Before going on a journey, he commanded that a private bath-house be erected for her use near her dwelling, and during his absence, Barbara had three windows put in it, as a symbol of the Holy Trinity, instead of the two originally intended. When her father returned, she acknowledged herself to be a Christian. Upon hearing this he drew his sword to kill her, but her prayers created an opening in the tower wall and she was miraculously transported to a mountain gorge, where two shepherds watched their flocks. Dioscorus, in pursuit of his daughter, was rebuffed by the first shepherd, but the second betrayed her and was turned to stone and his flock changed to locusts. Dragged before the prefect of the province, Martinianus, who had her cruelly tortured, Barbara held true to her faith. During the night, the dark prison was bathed in light and new miracles occurred. Every morning her wounds were healed. Torches that were to be used to burn her went out as soon as they came near her. Finally she was condemned to death by beheading. Her father himself carried out the death-sentence. However, as punishment for this, he was struck by lightning on the way home and his body was consumed by flame. Barbara was buried by a Christian, Valentinus, and her tomb became the site of miracles.
According to Legenda Aurea her martyrdom was December 4 “in the reign of emperor Maximianus and Prefect Marcien” (r. 286–305); the year was given as 267 in the French version edited by Father Harry F. Williams of the Anglican Community of the Resurrection (1975). Various documents, including two surviving mystery plays, differ on the location of her martyrdom, which is variously given as Tuscany, Rome, Antioch, Baalbek, and Nicomedia.
Saint Barbara is one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers. Her association with the lightning that killed her father has caused her to be invoked against lightning and fire, and, by association, with explosions, and hence, artillery and mining. Her feast on December 4 was included in the Tridentine Calendar, having been introduced in Rome in the 12th century. In 1729 that date was assigned to the celebration of Saint Peter Chrysologus, reducing that of Saint Barbara to a commemoration in his mass. In 1969, because the accounts of her life and martyrdom were judged to be entirely fabulous, lacking clarity even about the place of her martyrdom, it was removed from that mass. But she is still mentioned in the Roman Martyrology, which, in addition, lists another ten martyr saints named Barbara.
In the 12th century, the relics of Saint Barbara were brought from Constantinople to St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery in Kiev, where they were kept until the 1930s, when they were transferred to St. Vladimir’s Cathedral in the same city. A small part of St. Barbara’s relics were brought to the United States by Patriarch Filaret of The Ukrainian Orthodox Church Kyivan Patriarchate in November 2012, they are permanently on display for veneration at St. Andrew Ukrainian Orthodox Cathedral in Bloomingdale, Illinois.
The Spanish santa bárbara, the corresponding Italian santa barbara, and the French sainte-barbe can be used in those languages to signify the powder magazine of a ship or fortress. It was customary to have a statue of Saint Barbara at the magazine to protect the ship or fortress from suddenly exploding.
Saint Barbara’s Day, is celebrated in the armed forces by the British (Royal Artillery, RAF Armourers, and Royal Engineers, Australians (Royal Regiment of Australian Artillery, RAAF Armourers), Canadians (Explosive Ordnance Disposal Technicians, Canadian Air Force Armourers, Royal Canadian Artillery, Canadian Military Field Engineers, Royal Canadian Navy Weapons Engineering Technicians), and New Zealanders (RNZAF Armourers, RNZA, RNZN Gunners Branch), as well as by Irish Defence Forces Artillery Regiments, Norwegian Armed Forces Artillery Battalion, the United States Army and Marine Corps Field and Air Defense Artillery, Marine Corps Explosive Ordnance Disposal Technicians in many countries, and other artillery units. The units and sub-units celebrate the day with church parades, sports days, guest nights, cocktail parties, dinners and other activities. She is also the patron of the Italian Navy. Several mining institutions also celebrate the day, such as some branches of the Australian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy. Although they do not celebrate her saint’s day, she is the patron saint of US Navy and Marine Corps Aviation Ordnance.
In Greece, the day is celebrated by the Artillery Corps of the Greek Army and the Cypriot National Guard. Artillery camps throughout the two countries host celebrations in honor of the saint, where the traditional sweet of loukoumades is offered to soldiers and visitors, allegedly because it resembles cannonballs. Saint Barbara is also the patron saint of the northern Greek city of Drama, where a sweet called varvara, which resembles a more liquid form of koliva (a sweet wheat porridge with fruit), is prepared on her feast day. The Spanish Artillerymen also venerate her as patron saint of their branch, and parades, masses and dinners are held in her honor and on behalf of those serving in the branch.
The city of Santa Barbara, California, located approximately 100 miles northwest of Los Angeles, is named for the Mission Santa Barbara. The Franciscan mission was dedicated to her in 1602 after Sebastián Vizcaíno survived a violent storm just offshore on the eve of her feast day. Other Spanish and Portuguese settlements named Santa Barbara were established in Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Honduras, Mexico, Venezuela, and the Philippines. Many churches in Russia are dedicated in her name, including one in Moscow, next to Saint Basil’s Cathedral, and in Yaroslavl.
In the Afro-Cuban and Afro-Brazilian religions of Santería, Candomblé, and Umbanda she is syncretized with Changó. Changó (Shangó) is the deity of fire, lightning, thunder, and war, but he is also the patron of music, drumming, and dancing. He represents male beauty and virility, passion and power. His colors are red and white, and his eleke (sacred necklace) is made of alternating red and white beads. He is syncretized with Santa Barbara because she is portrayed in Catholic lore as a fiercely independent and brave young woman, dressed sometimes in a red and white costume, holding a sword and wearing a crown like Changó. The feast day for Changó/ Santa Bárbara is December 4, one of the most important festival days in Cuba. It may seem surprising that such a powerful masculine Orichá is syncretized with a female saint, but there are underlying links between their stories. For example, Santa Barbara’s father was struck down by a lightning bolt, which is Changó’s favorite weapon. And according to a patakí (sacred story) about Changó, one time he had to dress in women’s clothes (lent to him by Oyá) in order to escape undetected from his enemies. Santa Bárbara’s association with Changó shows that females and males alike can wield Changó’s power. Both male and female initiates can be crowned with Changó, making him their father in the religion.
In Georgia, Saint Barbara’s Day is celebrated as Barbaroba on December 17 (which is December 4 in the old style calendar). The traditional festive food is lobiani, bread baked with a bean stuffing.
In Macedonia Saint Barbara’s day is celebrated as Варвара (Varvara) on 17th December. Some Macedonians celebrate with their closest family and friends at home, while others refrain, believing that people who step in their house on Saint Barbara’s day will give them either good or bad luck for the rest of the year.
In the mining town Kalgoorlie, Australia, as patron saint of miners she is venerated in the annual St. Barbara’s Day parade.
The United States Army Field Artillery Association and the United States Army Air Defense Artillery Association maintain the Order of Saint Barbara as an honorary military society of the United States Army Field Artillery and the United States Army Air Defense Artillery. Members of both United States Marine Corps and United States Army, along with their military and civilian supporters, are eligible for membership. There are two levels of membership in the order, The Ancient Order and the Honorable Order. The most distinguished level is the Ancient Order.
Saint Barbara’s day or Eid il-Burbara is celebrated in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine among Arab Christians annually on December 4, in a feast day similar to that of North American Halloween. The traditional food for the occasion is Burbara, a bowl of boiled barley, pomegranate seeds, raisins, anise and sugar offered to masquerading children. The general belief among Lebanese Christians is that Saint Barbara disguised herself in numerous characters to elude the Romans who were persecuting her.
Here is a recipe for loukoumades so you can celebrate in Greek style.
1 packet (7 g/2¼ oz) active dry yeast
1 tbsp sugar
2 cups warm water
3 cups plain flour
¼ tsp salt
½ tsp nutmeg, freshly ground
1 tsp vanilla extract
In a large bowl, mix the yeast and sugar with ½ cup of the warm water.
When the mixture turns foamy (about 5 minutes), stir in the remaining 1½ cups of warm water along with the flour, salt, nutmeg, and vanilla. Mix until the batter is thick and smooth.
Cover the bowl with a cloth and let the batter rise in a warm place until almost doubled in size, about 1–1½ hours. (It should be very soft and bubbly.)
Pour vegetable oil into a deep fryer, or saucepan making sure there is at least 2 inches between the oil surface and the top of the pot. Heat the oil to 350°F/.
Working in batches, slide dollops of the batter (about the size of a heaped tablespoon) into the hot oil, making sure not to crowd the pan. Dollops will puff up and float to the surface. Turn occasionally, until the balls are a crisp, golden brown on all sides, about 3–4 minutes.
Remove carefully with a slotted spoon and drain on wire racks. Repeat as many times as is needed. Place drained puffs on warm platter and keep warm.
To serve, drizzle honey over them, and dust generously with powdered cinnamon.
Loukoumades are best if eaten warm, the same day they are made.