Thursday, 4 December 2014

Saint Barbara - or why geoscientists are a celebratory bunch

Today is December 4th, which is known in many places as the day of Saint Barbara, or simply "Barbara Day". Traditionally, at least in Germany, we cut a couple twigs of our Forsythia in the backyard (the "Barbara twigs"), and put them in the living room in a vase. The 20 days until Christmas and the warmth of the room are just enough to make the pretty little flowers of the Forsythia twigs come out in time for Christmas Eve. The bright yellow flower blossom is supposed to be a sign of good luck for the new year.

Now you're gonna be sitting there thinking:
Why the heck is she telling us about some Saint and a plant and Christmas traditions?
Turns out the Saint after which December 4th is named, Saint Barbara of Nicomedia (Turkey), is the patron saint of miners, and generally of people who work (and/or live?) in the mountains. The legend behind this can be told in a few sentences: Barbara (your average teenage girl in the 200th century) decided to be a Christian, her father didn't like it, she fled town and hid in a crack in the rocks, was found, was killed, but then her father was killed by lightning... in other words, the usual. She may be the patron saint for miners because of the lightning, or because of her hiding place in the rock. 
What matters more is the fact that if she is the patron saint for miners and other people in the mountains, that includes - by extension - the geologists/volcanologists, and maybe even geophysicists. When you're doing your geosciences undergrad degree in Munich, you sure don't wanna miss the legendary "Barbarafest". Every year in early December (not always exactly on the 4th...), all the geology/geosciences/geophysics students get together for a night of partying in honor of our good old friend Saint Barbara. Of course, as you can imagine, a lot of the original story behind this tradition is lost, but in spirit we're definitely honoring her by having all sorts of geology related fun. Despite the fact that my undergraduate years were quite a while back, I still remember the Barbara celebrations very vividly. Even more so, my memory got refreshed recently: My awesome little cousin is following in my footsteps and getting a geosciences undergrad in Munich. Go, Jara! She's a first-year, so like every first-year before her (including myself) she will have to go through the "geology baptism". Geologists are a happy, sometimes slightly alcoholic bunch, so the baptism will most definitely include some minor (?) drinking components. Of course, geology challenges like using your rock hammer in an (entirely non-)appropriate manner and other fun activities are included - all thanks to our good old friend, Saint Barbara. Sounds like fun to you? Make sure you don't go too crazy at the Barbarafest though, you might wanna have some left-over energy for the famous "Geolaus" celebration on December 6th, just next door at the other university in Munich. Of course, taking place in deeply catholic Bavaria and all, this celebration is also in memory of one of our good old Saints, this time we're talking about Saint Nicholas (Bishop of Myra). But maybe we'll save this story for another time...
You see, geoscientists in Germany are clearly very conscious of important religious occasions, long-lived and beloved traditions, and they are generally quite a happy and welcoming bunch (assuming that you survive the geology baptism...). Do geoscientists in other countries have the same celebrations? Or are there even more Saints that are celebrated by geologists worldwide?
One final little curious detail: Some sources say that Barbara is also one of the patron saints in Sicily, because she is believed to have protected the town of Catania from Etna's lava flows. So basically one could say she's also a volcano saint. Who knew? Maybe I should be putting her picture in the corner of my blog.

A photo of a church window depicting Saint Barbara and a miner or mason (who could equally be a geologist... I mean, look at the hammer!). Photo: GFreihalter