1. Education

Your suggestion is on its way!

An email with a link to:


was emailed to:

Thanks for sharing About.com with others!

The Name and the Legend

Plus: Christmas and Barbarazweig

The Name

The name Barbara comes from the Greek (barbaros) and Latin (barbarus, -a, -um) words for foreign (later: rough, barbaric). The name was first made popular in Europe through the veneration of Barbara of Nicomedia, a legendary holy figure (see below) said to have been martyred in 306. Her legend, however, did not emerge until at least the 7th century. Her name became popular in German (Barbara, Bärbel), French (Babette, Barbe), Swedish (Barbro), Russian (Varvara), English and other languages. In 1969 the Roman Catholic church declared die heilige Barbara a non-historical person and took her feast day (Dec. 4) off the church calendar (although her sainted status is still reflected in place names such as Santa Barbara, California).

Despite such setbacks, whether she was a real person or not, Barbara's name lives on. Although Barbara is not a fashionable German name today, the custom of Barbarazweig is still popular, particularly in Catholic regions. (See below for more on this Christmas custom.)

More Names > Vornamenlexikon (Ara-Cha)

The Legend • Die Legende

Die heilige Barbara

The patron saint of miners, artillerymen and firemen, die heilige Barbara (St. Barbara, d. 306), has lent her name to an interesting Germanic Christmas custom that has its roots (literally) in pre-Christian pagan times. But the legend of her martyrdom seems to have originated around the 7th century. Officially, she is one of the 14 Auxiliary Saints or Holy Helpers (Nothelfer), but as mentioned above, the Catholic church has declared her a non-historical person.

The traditional feast day of Saint Barbara is December 4th, and this date plays a key role in the interesting custom that bears the name of this virgin martyr. According to legend, Barbara lived in Asia Minor in what is today Turkey. Her father was the pagan emperor Dioscorus, a suspicious, untrusting fellow who persecuted Christians and kept his daughter a virgin by locking her up in a tower whenever he was away.

One day upon returning home, Dioscorus noticed that the tower where he kept his daughter under lock and key now had three windows instead of two. Puzzled, he asked her why she had added a window in his absence. Barbara then made the mistake of confessing that she had become a Christian, and the three windows represented the trinity of her new faith. Incensed, her father demanded that she renounce this heresy. After some time had passed and she still stubbornly refused to deny her new religion, her father commanded that she be tortured and beheaded. The legend further says that immediately following this gruesome event, Dioscorus was struck dead by lightning (which may explain why St. Barbara is often invoked during thunderstorms).

Another important element of the Barbara-Legende concerns her imprisonment, and led (so they say) to the Christmas custom that bears her name. Depressed and alone in her cell, Barbara found a dried up cherry tree branch, which she moistened daily with a few drops from her drinking water. She was greatly consoled by the beautiful cherry blossoms that appeared just days before her impending execution.

The Christmas Custom

Barbarazweig: The Barbara Branch Custom

Traditionally in the German-speaking countries, particularly in Austria and the Catholic regions of Germany, a small cherry branch or sprig is cut off and placed in water on December 4th, Barbaratag (St. Barbara's Day). Sometimes a twig from some other flowering plant or tree may be used: apple, forsythia, plum, lilac, or similar blossoms. But it is the cherry tree that is most customary and authentic. This custom is known as Barbarazweig or Barbara Branch.

The cherry branch (Kirschzweig) or other cutting is then placed in water and kept in a warm room. If all goes well, on Christmas day the sprig will display blossoms. If it blooms precisely on December 25th, this is regarded as a particularly good sign for the future.

MORE > German Christmas Guide

The Legend and Barbara Branch articles are reprinted from The German Way and More Web site with permission.

Related Pages

Vornamenlexikon (Ara-Cha)
Part 2 of our annotated A-Z lexicon of Germanic names, their meanings and origins.

The first page of our annotated A-Z lexicon of Germanic names, their meanings and origins.

First Names in Germany and the USA
A comparison of names for boys and girls in the two countries.

A German Christmas
Information related to Weihnachten. Includes links and an annotated English-German Christmas Glossary.

What's in a Name? - Ludwig
All about sending free electronic postcards to your friends.

Chronik der Geschichte (1)
A German-English timeline of German and world history. With links to more detailed articles and information.

All of our annotated English-German vocabulary lists.

German for Beginners - Contents
Our free online German course.

German Newsletters
Subscribe to a free newsletter!

German Chat


©2017 About.com. All rights reserved.