Cannons and lightning for St. Barbara

Ancient Order of St. Barbara medallion. St. Barbara and her tower on the front (above) — which is worn facing out — and the reverse is a cannon for the artillery units (below). The U.S. Field Artillery Association gives the award each year. (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Halloween was over a month ago, but along comes St. Barbara and another tradition involving disguises and treats.

This third-century martyr used to have a feast day on Dec. 4, but it was removed from the universal calendar in 1969. Many places and groups still honor Barbara — one of the saints known as the “14 Holy Helpers.”

Barbara is the patron saint of architects, geologists, miners and various military branches associated with artillery. In fact, there are military balls held in her honor each year, by the U.S. Marine Corps and the Army. More on that in a bit.

Barbara lived in the third century and was the daughter of a wealthy man in what is now part of Turkey, then called Asia Minor and under the rule of Rome. Barbara’s beauty was renowned and her father, Dioscorus, decided to lock her in a tower to discourage suitors. He went away for a while, long enough for Barbara to order a window built in her tower. (This is where her link to architects comes from.) She wanted a window with three arches to symbolize the Holy Trinity. Somewhere, she had learned about the Christian faith and been baptized. This was during a persecution of Christians under the Roman emperor, Maximian.

Later, Barbara was able to escape from her tower. She hid in a cave in a cliff that closed itself over to hide her. (This is the link to miners.) Finally, some say, because she was betrayed, Dioscorus found her and forced her to return home.

When Barbara would not renounce her faith, Dioscorus reported her to the authorities, and she was brought before a judge named Marcian. First, Marcian tried to persuade her, but when she persisted in her faith, Marcian had her tortured. When Barbara still refused to honor the Roman gods, she was sentenced to death. Her own father beheaded her.

(Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

All of this is tied to something like Halloween — no, not the torture and death part. The disguises and treats part.

While she was on the run from her father, Barbara used disguises to hide herself. So today, on her feast day in Middle Eastern countries, children don masks and disguises to visit homes, singing songs about Barbara, and receiving treats and even money. 

Eid al-Bubara (the feast of Barbara’s name in the Middle East) is also a time for special bakery, often with cinnamon and/or nuts, or a flavored porridge made from wheat. In Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Palestine and Turkey, it is said that, when Barbara ran away, she traveled through newly planted wheat fields. The plants sprang back in place, hiding her footprints.

This link between Barbara and wheat made its way to France, where it became customary to plant wheat seeds about three weeks before her feast day, using cotton wool for a seed bed. The newly sprouted seeds were placed around the Nativity scene. (If the seeds died instead, it meant a bad farm year was ahead.)

While Barbara lived in her tower, legend also says she had a dead cherry tree branch with her. When she died, the branch blossomed. This led to the German tradition of forcing fruit branches to blossom between Dec. 4 and Christmas. Branches are cut from trees and put in warm water to force them to bud and blossom. If they do, it’s considered good luck.

Now, for the military link to Barbara’s story. After she was beheaded by her father, Dioscorus was struck by lightning and killed. This led to her becoming a protector against lightning, but also for cannons.

When gunpowder first made its way from China to the West, in the late 13th century, it was an unstable material. Cannons using it often blew up, without warning. It was like being struck by lightning. This is why artillery units soon designated Barbara as their patron saint.

For example, the U.S. Army’s 7th Field Artillery Regiment is known as “First Lightning” and they honor St. Barbara as their patron. Not only is she honored by the U.S. military, but also by many ammunition and artillery corps worldwide, including the British Royal Air Forces Armourers, the Australian Artillery, the Irish Defense Force Artillery, the Greek Army Artillery and the Royal Canadian Artillery.

Every year, St. Barbara balls, dances, dinners and parades are held by the U.S. Army and U.S. Marine Corps Artillery. The U.S. Field Artillery Association annually awards two St. Barbara medals, known as the “Ancient Order of St. Barbara” and the “Honorable Order of Saint Barbara.” The approving authority for these awards is the commandant of the Air Defense Artillery School at Fort Sill in Lawton, Neb. (Currently, he is Col. Richard Harrison.) Both awards are given for long-term distinguished service to the Field Artillery or the Air Defense Artillery Corps. The medals, one gold and one silver, bear the image of St. Barbara with her windowed tower on the front and a cannon on the reverse side.

The awards are given on or near Barbara’s traditional feast day of Dec. 4. The medals may be given at events that can range from a parade to a dinner or even a military ball. If a dinner is given, the final toast is always reserved “to St.Barbara.”

Sources: The Golden Legend; fieldartillery.org; NCR.org; germangirlinamerica.com; firstoffire.net; marinecorpstimes.com; army.mil; catholicculture.org; the International Society of Explosive Engineers at patoacisee.org; and the Defense Visual Information Distribution Service at dvids.net.