It never ceases to amaze that if you scratch the surface of any holiday dish you’ll find a goddess history thousands of years old. Take this German Lemon Loaf Cake baked by my Oma for as long as I can remember. Its intensely lemony glaze soaks into the cake and yields a delightful crunch to the top. A few years ago, I inherited her long lemon loaf pan and decided to research the origins of the recipe and was delighted to discover it was traditionally served on the Feast Day of St.Barbara to mark the beginning of the Christmas season. Who knew?
Apparently, its characteristic long narrow shape represents the tower she was once imprisoned in. (More on that later). Barbara watered a branch from a cherry tree during her time in the tower. After her death, the cherry branch she’d kept blossomed. From this comes “Barbarazweig,” the custom of unmarried women bringing branches (preferably Cherry) into the house on December 4th. If they bloomed on 25 December, it was a sign of good luck – and meant you would be married in the new year. This Christmas custom likely has roots in pre-Christian times when blossoming twigs and branches symbolized the Goddess who creates new life in the depths of winter.
I had never heard of St. Barbara so was amazed to discover her Feast Day is celebrated on Dec. 4th (or Dec 17th) in countries far afield as Germany, Austria, France, Italy, Bulgaria, Greece, Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, Brazil, Chile, Venezuela and Mexico – and with quite the variety of dishes.
So who was this St. Barbara associated with winter feasting? Well, that turns out to be quite the story. Googling her name reveals hundreds of paintings, icons, artworks, and sculptures spanning centuries. Most depict her as a red-robed young woman with long flowing tresses either holding or standing near a tall tower.
In the Orthodox Church, St. Barabar “Berbara” was an indigenous girl who lived around the 3rd century in what is today Lebanon. Her father was governor of the Syrian city Heliopolis and kept her under lock and key in a tower – safely away from Christian influence. Long story short, after she lets down her long hair from the window in order to be baptized, she is executed by her own father.
It was a common custom for the Church to absorb the symbols of pagan goddesses into the iconography of saints, so I find it interesting that St. Barbara is often shown wearing a towering crown similar to Atargatis, the Baalat (“Mistress”) of Syria. She was a goddess of generation and fertility and responsible for the people’s protection and well-being. Her tower (mural) crown is believed to symbolize her governance and protection over the ramparts of the holy city of Heliopolis – where Atargatis had her chief temple.
Heliopolis was also the site of a Roman Temple to the fertility goddess Venus, called Venus Heliopolitana, believed to be a version of Atargatis. Shortly after Barbara’s death, Emperor Constantine the Great demolished the Temple of Venus converting it to a Christian church – later dedicated to Saint Barbara.
Some believe St. Barbara has parallels with the Roman goddess Bona Dea whose feast was celebrated the night between the 3rd and 4th of December, the same day as St. Barbara and in some images, Bona Dea is seen wearing a tower crown. Bona Dea, literally “the good goddess” was the protector of fertility and prosperity. During her women-only feast, flowers, branches, and vines were offered and wine, a potion of milk and honey, and spelt cakes among the foods consumed.
Religious scholar and author Margaret Starbird offers another theory about St. Barbara’s identity. She writes “There is another “Lady of the Tower” long over-looked, whose icons include beautiful long tresses, red robes, and a chalice or “sacred vessel.”
That Lady is Mary Magdalene, whose title is derived from “Magdal,” an Aramaic/Hebrew root word meaning “tower” or “fortress” and a variety of medieval images depict her “Barbara style” with a tower. Starbird believes during this time Mary Magdalene was an important symbol for heretical Christians (who believed she brought the Holy Grail to France after the crucifixion). Thus the many images of the red-robed lady of the tower began to be attributed to St. Barbara.
Despite Starbird’s theory, a number of medieval paintings actually show St. Barbara and Mary Magdalen together or in triptych with other Saints, leading some scholars to speculate St. Barbara (Mary Magdalene?) was one member of the Goddess Trinity. An old saying goes:
"Barbara mit dem Turm (Barbara with the tower) Margarethe mit dem Wurm (Margaret with the worm) * Katherina mit dem Radl (Kathryn with the wheel) Das sind die heiligen drei Madl. (Those are the three holy “girls.”
*The “worm” is an old expression for the serpent, also sacred to ancient goddesses.
Whether St. Barbara was Mary Magdalene we’ll never know, but I think it likely she was a replacement for pagan divinities worshipped at the time. One obvious reason is that she was removed from the Roman Catholic Liturgical Calendar in 1969 – due to the lack of historical evidence for her existence. Another important clue is found in the history of many foods offered on her feast day.
Today in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Palestine, Saint Barbara’s Day (in Arabic Eid il-Burbara) is celebrated with a dish of boiled barley or cracked wheat, dates, pomegranate seeds, walnuts, and almonds. In Northern Greece, December 4th is the Feast Day of Agia Barbara, where a sweet called Varvara, a pudding of boiled cracked wheat, berries, nuts, and cream, is served to celebrate the day. In Southern Austria, Catholics make Kletzenbrot or Sweet Barbara Bread a sort of fruitcake made with hazelnuts and rum or brandy.
In Georgia, her feast day Barbaroba is on Dec. 17th and is said to originate in the pagan feast for the sun & fertility goddess Barbale or Barbol. Round ritual pancakes with an amber layer of golden buttery filling were offered to the goddess who returned light and life to the earth. When the country converted to Christianity, worship of Saint Barbara and Barbale intermingled and round golden cakes (now filled with beans) called Lobiani were made. Today they are still stamped with the symbol of the sun.
In Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Honduras, Mexico, and Venezuela she is known as Sante Barbe or Santa Barbara Africana. Born out of syncretism between several traditional religions of West and Central Africa and Roman Catholicism, she is often portrayed as Our Lady of Czestochowa, a Black Madonna. Interestingly depictions of her include a scar on her cheek similar to Mary Magdalene who often appears with a similar scar. Red roses and flowers, wine, and red apples are offered to her.
Is it a coincidence that barley, wheat, pomegranates, dates, apples, almonds, and hazelnuts along with fruit bread, porridges, and pancakes were once traditionally “holy day” foods offered to goddesses in the ancient world? Not according to Susan Starr Sered whose book Priestess, Mother, Sacred Sister, Religions Dominated by Women (Oxford University Press) explores the many holiday dishes and sacramental foods which serve as hallmarks of women’s religions scattered throughout the world and across the centuries.
This brings me back to the Lemon Loaf that marked my entry point into Barbara’s story. The original cake probably dates to the middle ages when lemons became popularly available (and St. Barbara grew wildly popular) but some suggest its origins in the Levant where lemons were first cultivated. Its color could descend from the golden sun cakes offered to local sun goddesses – but who really knows?
What does seem evident, however, is that it is likely a descendant of the many sacred dishes baked and served by women during this time of the year. I find it fascinating that Sered argues that in sacred ritual systems where women are both leaders and participants “emphasis on food and food preparation is one of the clearest and most common themes” along with “large quantities of elaborately prepared food” consumed in communal feasting, drinking, and dancing.
In this spirit, I invite you to celebrate the upcoming holiday season with St. Barbara’s Cake. Whether you wish to call her St. Berbara, Agia Barbara, Santa Africa Barbara, or Barbale, let her winter feasting commence! I’ve adapted the traditional version of St. Barbara’s cake with a little old-world food magic. A handful of petals of calendula with their bright yellow colors of the sun for Barbal, and in honor of Venus and Santa Barbara Africana, a splash of rosewater and fondant roses for fertility and love.
May your festive season be Merry & Bright!
St. Barbara Cake
My Oma’s pan is 12 inches X 4 inches wide – but you can also use a 9 x 5 loaf pan, an 11 x 4 pan, or five small pans (4 x 2 inches).
¾ cup butter softened
1 cup sugar
2-3 tablespoons fresh or dried calendula petals
1 cup flour
1 ¼ cup cornstarch (this is NOT a typo)
¾ teaspoon baking powder
Lemon Rosewater Glaze
Lemon juice from your squeezed lemon
1 cup icing sugar
1-2 tablespoons rosewater
Grate the peel of the lemon and set the peels aside. Squeeze out all the juice into a small cup and set aside.
In a bowl, cream the butter with the sugar. Beat in the eggs. Stir in the grated lemon peel and calendula petals. (remember to rehydrate dried petals in water).
In another bowl, combine the flour, cornstarch, and baking powder. Gradually add this to the butter mixture to make a stiff batter. Spread into a greased bread loaf pan. Bake in a preheated oven at 350 degrees F for 45-55 minutes, testing with a toothpick. Try not to overbake, the cake will be dry. Remove from the oven and let cool.
Lemon Rosewater Glaze
Mix the icing sugar with lemon juice. Add the rose water and mix into a smooth glaze.
Place the cake on a wire rack over a pan to catch the icing drippings. Poke a few holes in the top of the cake.
Pour the glaze over the cake and let it drizzle down the sides. When the icing hardens, the cake is ready to slice and serve.
While it’s traditional to serve with just one layer of glaze – I like a thicker topcoat, like icing, over the first. If you want thicker frosting you’ll need to make a second batch of glaze using half of the lemon juice and rose water i.e. juice of half a lemon and 1 tablespoon of rose water but the same amount of icing sugar. Slather this over your cake once the original glaze has dried.
Final note: There are so many more legends, so much more religious iconography, scholarship, and recipes behind the many faces of St. Barbara than I had time to include here. One could write an entire cookbook. My goal was to contextualize the Lemon Loaf Cake which marked my personal entrance into St. Barbara’s story. I apologize for this oversimplistic rendering of her, any errors I have made or any offense I might have incurred in this post.