Cherry Blossoms at Christmastime A story about the patron saint of miners in the Salzkammergut
You have heard about the patron saint of miners, haven’t you?
In her honor, every year on 4 December we celebrate the so-called “Barbarafeier” and ask for protection for those who work deep below ground. Precisely what Saint Barbara has to do with cherry branches at Christmas and how the miners commemorate the saint in their daily lives, is something I will tell you more about in the following blog article.
I am Magdalena and in my future blog postings I will share lots of information with you about the traditions, stories and people of Salzwelten. You can find more about who I am in this description of the author.
Many mysterious legends swirl about the martyr Barbara of Nicomedia, also known as Saint Barbara. One of those says that she was imprisoned, persecuted and ultimately executed due to her strong Christian faith. But what happened exactly? Here is a brief overview of her life:
Barbara was both clever and pretty, which meant she had many suitors. Because of that, her father, a pagan, attempted to shield her from the outside world by locking her in a tower. After many rejected marriage proposals, Barbara received a revelation from the Holy Spirit and had herself baptized. At word of this, her father became furious and decided to kill his daughter. Initially, Barbara succeeded in fleeing. A rock opened up before her and gave her protection. Nonetheless, she was later captured and finally perished for her faith. Legend would have it that it was her father who beheaded her. It is told that the flowers which had been laid on her grave began to flower at Christmas. Saint Barbara was just 29 years old. The traditional tunic worn by miners has 29 buttons, symbolizing the age of their patron saint
A different version of the story tells us that, on the way to prison, a branch caught on her robe. She placed this branch in a vessel containing water and it bloomed on the same day as her martyrdom. This is the origin of the tradition of cutting cherry branches on 4 December and placing them in a vase with water. But more about that a little later... ☺
The Patron Saint of Miners
Because the legend says that a rock protected Saint Barbara from her persecutors, she has since been the patron saint of miners. She protects people toiling below ground from the perils of their labor inside the mine as well as unexpected accidents and other unfortunate happenings. In our salt mines in the Salzkammergut region, you will frequently discover small side tunnels containing a figure of Saint Barbara, specially decorated with fresh fir branches and candles on the days before 4 December. In 1935, the miners of Altaussee even constructed the Barbara Chapel out of pure rock salt in her honor – the most significant monument, in my mind, that you will find in the mine galleries of the Salzwelten today.
Unlike the Salzkammergut, here at our location on the Dürrnberg just outside Salzburg it isn’t Saint Barbara, but rather Saint Rupert who is venerated. He was the first bishop of Salzburg and is always portrayed with a barrel of salt in his hand. As the patron saint of the entire Province of Salzburg, he is of particular significance to the Dürrnberg miners! Insider tip: Have you ever discovered the Rupert Chapel in the tunnels of Salzwelten Salzburg? Not yet? In that case, keep your eyes peeled the next time you visit – it will be worth your while!
The Barbara Chapel
On the subject of the Barbara Chapel ... Aside from the incredibly beautiful mine galleries of pure rock salt, the chapel deep inside the Altaussee mine is definitely an absolute highlight! I never fail to be impressed every time I step into the chapel and stand there in front of the big altar, built from orangey-red blocks of salt. A masterful achievement of the Altaussee miners, who began building it in the year 1933. The salt crystals they used in the process came from the Monsberg rock-salt mine. In the middle of the Late Renaissance altar stands the Virgin Mary, flanked by Saint Peter and Saint Giles, the patron saint of Altaussee. Saint Giles is also the reason why the people of Altaussee celebrate their famous fair at the beginning of September.
The Barbara Statue
Definitely well worth seeing: the Gothic statue of Saint Barbara as well as the mine wall that forms the left side of the chapel. This wooden figure carved right here in the Alps was created between 1460 and 1470. In her right hand, Barbara holds the tower in which, according to the legend, she was imprisoned – and in the left hand, a chalice.
Fascinating fact: During WW2, the figure was taken to Vienna for further investigation. There, it was established that the “salty” climate inside the mine had had no negative effects on the artwork whatsoever and had actually helped to preserve it. This was likely one of the reasons why the Nazis subsequently decided to hide in Salzwelten Altaussee such world-famous (looted) artworks as the Ghent Altarpiece, Michelangelo’s Madonna as well as pieces by Vermeer and Rembrandt. You can learn more about the entire story in our blog article “History of the Altaussee Mine” or when you come here in person on your next visit!More about: The History of Altaussee
Barbarafeier on 4 December
The chapel 700 meters below ground is full of fragrances – saturated with the smells of fir needles, incense and candle wax. The lighting – pallid and subdued. Illuminated in the glow of white candles, an impressive altar of pure orangey-red rock salt stands in the middle of the chapel. To the right and left of this are two big Christmas trees, decorated with strands of lights and stars made from straw. Solemnly, a wind ensemble opens the festivities and the priest, assisted by his acolytes, commemorates the martyr Barbara and pleads for her protection.
The same ceremony greets you every year on 4 December at our “Barbarafeier”. Together with you, we ask that a blessing be given to our miners, employees and the many visitors, big and small, who join us here at Salzwelten Altaussee.
Afterwards, we walk together through the mystical galleries of the Altaussee salt mine, coming to the newly restaged salt lake. There, the atmosphere once again becomes movingly evocative, serenaded as we are by the sounds and melodies of Christmastime. As a special souvenir, all participants receive a blessed cherry branch to take home with them.
Which brings us back to a special tradition associated with this particular day:
The Tradition of the Cherry Branch
What is behind this custom exactly?
As I mentioned at the outset when I was telling you about the legend of Saint Barbara, a small branch got caught in her cloak, which was then placed in a vessel containing water. On the exact day of her death, that same branch was covered with fresh blossoms.
To this day, many people believe steadfastly that a branch from a cherry or other fruit tree that blooms on Christmas Day brings good fortune and blessings in the year to come. We nurture this tradition every year at Salzwelten and give every guest a branch at the end of the ceremony in honor of Saint Barbara – so that you, too, may receive strength, health and happiness from our patron saint in the coming year!
Why not give it a try yourself this year!
- So, pull on your jacket, step out into the garden and cut off a branch.
- Most suitable are branches from fruit trees, such as cherry, or willow or forsythia.
- The branches should be severed from the tree with a long, diagonal cut.
- Afterwards, stick the branch in a vase filled with fresh water, checking the water level regularly.
- To preserve the branch even longer, add a little powdered sugar to the water.
- Don’t place the branches directly on top of a heater. Too much heat can easily cause damage and make the branches dry out before the buds have had a chance to open.
- With a little bit of luck, your buds will be in full bloom by Christmas morning, bringing you good fortune and good health in the coming year!
About the author
Magdalena has worked at Salzwelten since 2017. She is responsible for online marketing and social media and has a personal connection to the mine due to her own family history – her great-grandfather worked shifts deep inside the Dürrnberg mine for 40 years. Even as a child, as she played in her garden at the entrance to a magical “mine” of her own imagination, she discovered her first love for the world of salt mining…