Every year since I remember, my mother used to buy some budded, bare branches on December 4. They were most often willow or hazelnut branches, as these seemed to bud pretty much as the earliest in Germany. They looked somewhat austere; and they were usually placed into a puristic designer vase on a medium height cupboard in our living room. As a child I wasn’t too fond of these bare looking arrangements. But the story my mother told me about them was more than feasible to me. It was actually pretty fascinating.
My mother called these branches Barbara Branches. Having grown up in a Western German region that was mostly Catholic but also being an Upper-Silesian mining engineer’s daughter was probably the source for this so non-Lutheran tradition she set up in our family. “Barbara” obviously related to the early third century Lebanese saint.
Now, this young woman was kept in a turret by her father. Sounds almost a bit like Rapunzel to me, come to think of it. Anyhow, she somehow became a Christian inside her prison and denied the hand of a pagan groom that was offered her through her father. When she told her father that she had turned Christian and managed to escape his wrath, he persecuted her and tortured her to be killed. But her wounds healed up every night, torches meant to burn her extinguished, and after she was beheaded, her father was struck by lightning and killed. A cheerful story for sure – but as a child I mostly heard the good in this, believe me. The constant healing, the stamina, the resilience.
Saint Barbara is the patroness of any profession dealing with explosives, e.g. certain branches in the military and miners. Interestingly enough, “Santa Barbara” is also the name for the powder magazine of a ship or a fortress; in Germany it is called the “Barbette”, little Barbara. Branches of the German military and fire departments celebrate December 4 to this day. Mining areas in Germany even revere the saint in their clothing: some miners’ uniforms have 29 buttons in the front (the saint died allegedly at the age of 29), the three uppermost signifying her three years in the dungeon, the nine prongs at the collar her nine years in the turret. There are Barbara moneys and Barbara gifts at their celebrations on December 4. Other branches that made Saint Barbara their patron in later centuries were brush makers (because “barba”, i.e. hair seems to be related to the virgin’s name), hat makers (because hats COVER the hair), and for whatever reasons butchers, cooks, grave diggers, and booksellers as well as, more obviously again, girls in general, the dying, and prisoners.
What my mother referred to with her Barbara branches, though, was the hope they might blossom on Christmas Eve. When Saint Barbara went to prison, her coat broke a twig from a bush. According to legend, she placed it into a jar of water, and on the day of her beheading it started to bloom. In a way, Barbara branches symbolize eternal life. And for my mother it surely was also a symbol that in the mid of winter, there was new life budding already. She certainly didn’t superstitiously believe that it brought luck if it started to bloom by Christmas. But she surely knew her Bible and Christian symbolism.
That said, I’m never placing bare branches into designer vases these days. I don’t have much room for vases at all, come to think of it. But I surely start looking out for buds in the bushes and trees when taking a walk in December. Always thinking of the hope that lies in Nature’s cycle and in remembrance of those branches that always signified to me that Christmas is close by.