Today, 4th December, is the feast day of St Barbara. Last year, I wrote an advent botany post a German plant-related tradition related to St Barbara. There is also an interesting plant-related custom in France, or more precisely in Provence in the south of the country.
Tradition in Provence
There’s an old custom to plant wheat 20 days before Christmas in Provence. This tradition traces back to Roman times. According to the legend, if the wheat germinates well and is a healthy green colour, the next harvest will be an abundant one. The old saying in the provençal dialect states:
Quand lou blad vèn bèn, tout vèn bèn !
(If the wheat goes well, everything goes well)
Holy Trinity’s 3 Bowls
The good people of Provence plant wheat in 3 bowls or dishes on Saint Barbara’s Day. The day marks the true beginning of Christmas festivities in Provence. The 3 bowls symbolise the Holy Trinity (Father, Son and Holy Spirit). On Christmas Eve, the wheat bowls are placed on the table during the Christmas Eve meal (gros souper) before attending midnight mass.
How the Wheat is Grown
To grow the wheat (Triticum aestivum), 3 small bowls are filled with wet cotton wool. These days, various charities sell small seed packets. These sales particularly benefit the cause of children in hospital. However, due to today’s centrally-heated homes, the wheat may grow too fast and be flopping all over the place by Christmas Eve. The modern-day suggestion is to plant the wheat a week later than Saint Barbara’s Day so that it remains upright. Alternatively, there is a common practice to give the wheat seedlings a little support by tying a red ribbon around them. Other seeds are also grown, including lentils, but the traditional practice remains wheat.
A myriad of legends surrounds St Barbara across the Mediterranean, especially in the Eastern Orthodox Church. She was an early Christian Lebanese and Greek saint and martyr. The wheat legend claims that when Barbara was fleeing religious persecution, she ran through a field of wheat. The wheat grew quickly to cover her path and protect her from those chasing her.
Saint Barbara was the daughter of Dioscorus. She had lots of suitors for she was young and beautiful. To her father’s great displeasure, she preferred to devote herself to God. Her father imprisoned her in a tower lit by light from just two windows. Still, she managed to receive Christian teaching and to get baptised in the faith. The tower even gained a third window representing the Holy Trinity.
Escape and Betrayal
The Pagan Dioscorus threatened his daughter with his sword, but she succeeded in escaping and hid in a rock crevice. The legend goes that the rock opened up to give her refuge. She was betrayed by a shepherd. His sheep were turned into grasshoppers by God as a punishment for the betrayal.
Torture and Martyrdom
Barbara was imprisoned again. Her father pushed her to renounce her Christianity and marry a Pagan. When she refused, she was subjected to various forms of torture. In the end, her father cut her throat with his own hands. Discorus was struck by lightening as a punishment from God.
St Barbara Today
Saint Barbara’s place in the liturgical calendar was revised by the Vatican 1969 due to doubts over historical accuracy and proof. She remains venerated by those who work in dangerous professions. The people of Provence still cherish her saint’s day on 4th December. They sow wheat and hope for an excellent year ahead.
© Karen Andrews
Previous Related Blog
The German custom of St Barbara’s Branch appeared towards the end of the following Advent Botany blog in 2021:
References and Further Reading
- Moreau, Ludovic (2017): Tradition provençale: semer le blé de l’espérance le 4 décembre pour une année de prospérité.
- NotreProvence.fr (2006-2015): Le blé de la Sainte Barbe, tradition calendale.
- The Daily Mass (2020): St Barbara’s Wheat.
Karen does not seek or receive any commercial interest or advantage from this blog. She is not promoting any business venture. She simply loves to share fascinating facts about plants. These pages illustrate her love of plants, botany, biodiversity, gardens and creative expression. There is always so much to learn about plant diversity. This blog is designed as a showcase for photography, commentary on plants and wildlife, gardens and other places visited, horticulture and related topics. Viewpoints are her own, not those of her employer.
Photo sources credited where used