On the 17th December, Orthodox Christian Georgians had celebrated a holy day in Batumi, called Barbaroba. Continuing the association between Saint Barbara and grains and beans, every family baked lobiani, the ubiquitous bread dish stuffed with savoury bean paste. As families are abstaining from eating meat due to the Nativity Fast (or Saint Phillip’s fast), lobiani is an acceptable dish for this Feast. As in the Levant, pomegranate and raisins are common foods for this feast.
Saint Barbara is such a well-loved saint in Georgia. Many churches are named after her; there are four in Tbilisi alone. Most female saints venerated in Georgia were Georgian, or engaged in their mission in Georgia, but Saint Barbara of Heliopolis is an exception to the rule. Barbaroba (ბარბარობა) is her feast day.
Born in the Greek city of Heliopolis in Syria (now Baalbek in Lebanon), she was the daughter of a wealthy pagan widower. Her story is tragic as her chief persecutor and ultimately her executioner was her own father; before he became aware of his daughter’s Christian faith, he had been a devoted and caring parent.
Her day of commemoration in the Levant, Eid ul-Burbara, is a major event amongst Arab Christians and a special sweet pudding called Kameh or Sneyniyeh made from boiled wheat, pomegranate, anise, raisins and sugar is prepared to feed to children. A small pancake dish, stuffed with nuts or cheese called Atayef is also prepared for this purpose. Children dress up in disguise and call from house to house in their neighbourhoods singing songs and receiving festive food, a little similar to the western Trick-or-Treat custom. The custom of dressing up in disguise emanates from the story that Saint Barbara disguised herself when attempting to flee her father’s persecution. Another legend states that while running frantically from her father, Saint Barbara ran through a freshly planted wheat field, which grew instantly to magically cover her path. This miracle is recreated symbolically today by planting wheat seeds, beans or other grains in cotton wool on Saint Barbara’s feast day. The seeds germinate and grow in dense tufts to about 10-15 cm height by Christmas, when they are used to decorate the church.
The Feast of Saint Barbara is known in Georgia as Barbaroba. As the Georgian Church was under the authority of the Patriarchate of Antioch for many years, customs and feasts celebrated in the Levant have naturally found their way here and been adapted to local conditions.
There are many folk customs associated with Saint Barbara’s Day in Georgia; today is associated with matters of fate, and how one interacts with others on this day is said to determine the course of the following year. It is known as “The Day of Destiny”. So Georgians will be especially cheerful and patient today, in the hope of bestowing a peaceful and harmonious year ahead upon themselves and others. A great deal of importance is attached to the identity of the first person to cross the threshold of one’s house on Saint Barbara’s Day; if that person is a kind and devout person, it will bring good luck upon the whole household for the year.