Return to:




My name, for instance--even today it hasn't quite been supplanted by my Social Security or Medicare number, or the embossed numerals on my various credit cards. At least among friends, if not corporations, I'm still known as "Barbara."

Parents often pore over books of names for their expected baby--well aware that after providing their genes to the newborn, its name may be the most significant gift they will ever bestow on their child. A too-long name will be nothing but frustration as the poor child has to learn to spell it, and later, squeeze it on the way-too-small line provided on the multitude of forms he is doomed to fill out over his lifetime.

If your name lends itself to being transformed into a nickname--a whole set of social problems can arise as you endure teasing from playmates. Names have a way of going out of "fashion" too and honoring a grandparent by bestowing their name on today's baby may NOT be an honor if the name seems too archaic.

I was named for my grandmother, but even in 1990 the US Census reported that "Barbara" was number four on the list of common feminine names. So, it is far from being an archaic name. Even one of our recent Presidents has a wife named Barbara!

My grandmother, Barbara Hommerding Kemmerich, died giving birth to my father, so I was never to know her. But, bearing her name has given me a sense of connection with her and maybe some sense of obligation to honor her memory. I'm sure that my father's older brothers and sisters must have momentarily remembered their long-gone mother whenever they saw me--my name would have been an instant reminder of what they lost with her death. In the generation that followed mine, several of my cousins named a daughter Barbara--also honoring the grandmother they never knew.




When I began to delve into family history, I was intrigued to see how my name has been used in generation after generation of my grandmother's line. As early as 1727, "Anna Barbara Butzen" appears in the "Familien Buch" of the village of Reil, on the Mosel River in Germany. This part of Germany has always followed the Catholic faith and perhaps the name "Barbara" was chosen for daughters because of Saint Barbara.

This Saint Barbara lived around the third century after the birth of Christ and according to legend, was a beautiful girl whose heathen father jealously shut her up in a tower to protect her from the outside world. During her lonely hours in the tower, she started contemplating the teachings of Jesus and accepted the Christian religion. She bravely defied her heathen father's attempts to turn her from the Christian faith. In a rage at her defiance, her father beheaded her. But, on his way home, the father was struck by lightning and killed. Barbara was venerated as a Catholic saint by the seventh century and the legend of the lightning bolt striking her persecutor in time caused her to be regarded as the patron saint of danger from thunderstorms, fires and sudden death.

By a leap in logic which, frankly, I don't understand, when gunpowder made its appearance in the Western world, Saint Barbara came to be invoked for aid against accidents resulting from explosions. Since some early artillery pieces often blew up instead of firing their projectile, Saint Barbara became the patroness of artillerymen. Even today, the "Order of Saint Barbara" is an honorary military society of the US Army and Marine Corps Artillery. Saint Barbara Day falls on December 4 and is traditionally recognized by a formal dinner or military ball, often involving presentations of the Order of Saint Barbara.

Saint Barbara is usually represented standing by a tower with three windows, carrying the palm of a martyr in her hand. Often, she holds a chalice and a sacramental wafer and sometimes cannon are displayed near her.

In my home are three replicas of Saint Barbara, all purchased in South America by our son and daughter. The two smaller ceramic statues, from northeast Brazil and Venezuela, show Santa Barbara dressed in a white gown with red cape, holding a chalice with a small tower at her side. No cannons, though--just a very long sword in her hand.





The larger Santa Barbara is a four-foot high carved wood wall hanging from Cachoeira, in the state of Bahia, Brazil. No cannon by this saint's side either, and her sword has been transformed into a machete!
















If I thought it was a stretch to turn a decapitated woman into the patron saint of the US Field Artillery, that pales in comparison to how the Brazilians in the northeast state of Bahia have transformed Saint Barbara! When slaves were brought to Bahia from Africa, they carried with them the religion known as "Candomble" which has its own hierarchy of gods and saints.

"Iansa," is the Candomble goddess of storms who came to be associated with Santa Barbara in Brazil. Now, Iansa/Santa Barbara is the queen of thunder and lightning and patron saint of the fire brigades in Bahia! In Salvador, Bahia on St. Barbara's feast day in December, they celebrate the "Festa de Santa Barbara," by parading an effigy of the saint through the streets and past the fire station, where it is met with the sound of sirens. If you plan to attend the "festa" you should wear red and white--reflecting the color of Saint Barbara's gown and cape, I presume.


Mark's own high-tech Brazilian Santa Barbara--she's illuminated!










After Mark stumbled upon my namesake saint in Brazil and brought back these statues and wall carving, my interest in Santa Barbara was heightened. In Vinci, Italy during a trip to Tuscany in May, 2005, what did I find in the little Catholic church where Leonardo was baptized? Santa Barbara!--depicted in stained glass where her bright red cape glowed from the sunshine streaming through the window.





The more I travel, the more images of Santa Barbara I discover! On an Eastern Mediterranean cruise in May, 2006, we strolled along the streets of Burano, an island in the Venetian Lagoon which is famous for its lace-making. Seeing a "Santa Barbara Chapel" we peeked inside, and there, hanging on the wall, was the image of Santa Barbara--done in beautiful, handmade Burano lace.

In this Burano version of Santa Barbara, she is holding what is probably the "palm of a martyr" but her tower and cannon are conspicuously absent.

And, there is yet another interesting custom related to Saint Barbara--in 2013, a good friend who shares the name of "Barbara" told me about the German custom of "Barbarazweig" [Barbara Branch"]:

"Around forty years ago when we were living in Salt Lake City, a professor whom my husband worked for in Tubingen, Germany came to visit. He was up early on December 4 and went outside. When he returned he was carrying a spray of branches from a forsythia bush. He told me it was in honor of my name day and that I was to put them in water and they would bloom by Christmas Eve. The blooming branches would assure good luck in the new year."

My friend added more about the charming "Barbarazweig" custom:
The tradition stems from St. Barbara carrying a fruit or forsythia branch as she walked to her prison. She put it in water and it bloomed on the day she was killed. Another story says that young girls pick branches from different trees and give them the names of possible suitors. The branch that blooms first is the one she will marry. Barbarazweige also would predict whether the harvest would be a good one or the blossoms were used to predict lotto numbers. The use of "Barbara branches" are found in many cultures and was first written about in the 13th century.  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. 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.

 Hmmm...."forcing" cherry or forsythia blossoms in winter seems a much more benign custom to associate with our namesake than shooting artillery weapons!

So, just when did parents first start naming their daughters "Barbara?" Obviously, they were doing so by 300 A.D. when Saint Barbara lived. But I suspect the name goes much farther back in time. It has the same root as "barbarian" which was originally applied to anyone who did not speak Greek. (The superior Greeks said the unintelligible "babbling" of the foreigners sounded like "barbarian" to them.)

When I visited a wine-maker relative of Barbara Hommerding Kemmerich in Reil, Germany, he proudly showed me the caves where he stored his wine. He said the caves were originally carved out by the Romans who once ruled the entire area along the Mosel River. When I commented that then we must be descended from the Romans, he drew himself up and exclaimed, "Nein! We were here LONG before the Romans--we are Celts."

It is easy to see why the invading Roman legions would have described the Mosel River Celts as "barbarians" or "foreigners" and maybe it was they who first bestowed the name "Barbara," meaning "foreign woman" upon some of the Celtic women.

So, what's in a name? A whole lot more than I ever realized!

Barbara Halliday, October 26, 2005 - [updated March 12, 2013] Salem, Oregon