Dec. 4 is the Feast of Saint Barbara
by ROBERT BECKHUSEN
Legend has is that Dioscorus, a wealthy fourth-century pagan living in what is now Turkey, locked his daughter Barbara in a tower to shelter her from the world.
His plan didn’t work. Barbara converted to Christianity and reconstructed a bath house Dioscorus had built for her, modifying it so its windows would form a trinity of light. In a rage, Dioscurus murdered Barbara before “he was struck down and consumed by a blinding flash of lightning,” the 11th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division explained on its website.
Why the 11th Marine Regiment — an artillery unit — is interested in the legend of Saint Barbara, recognized as a saint by the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches, is part of a curious but long-standing tradition among artillery troops in Europe and North America.
“Barbara came to be regarded as the sainted patroness of those in danger from thunderstorms, fire, explosions that is to say, sudden death,” the U.S. Field Artillery Association noted. “Given the questionable reliability of early cannon misfires, muzzle bursts and exploding weapons were not uncommon — it is easy to see why our predecessors sought the protection of Saint Barbara.”
“She has protected us well ever since.”
When the association between artillery and the saint began is unclear, but apparently, it started with French cannoneers in the 18th century, according to a 2002 Pentagon military history. “French cannon were adorned with her image in an often-vain attempt to forestall death by an exploding tube.”
Saint Barbara may have also stuck because of the role French engineers under Napoleon had in standardizing field artillery, making them easier to manufacture, repair and safer to fire.
It’s hard to overstate the role Napoleon — who himself served as an artillery officer before going on to lead revolutionary France — had in the weapon’s role in history, most notably by incorporating massed guns within a punishing and overarching battle plan.
Saint Barbara is often depicted standing by a tower and cannon, and holding a chalice. By the way, she’s the patron saint of the Italian navy, too.
The day of Saint Barbara’s martyrdom is also Dec. 4. Traditions in artillery units reflect this, and troops often have annual balls and events on or around the date. But there’s not an ironclad rule, and some units have them as late as February.
Saint Barbara is also from whom the Army and Marine Corps’ artillery honor society — the Order of Saint Barbara — derives its name. The society bestows several awards including the Honorable Order of Saint Barbara and the Ancient Order of Saint Barbara, but these can only be worn during official artillery events.
It gets … involved. For an example of how involved, check out the U.S. Field Artillery Association’s guide (.doc) on how to conduct a Saint Barbara’s Celebration. Protocol is not taken lightly. Recipes for Field Artillery Punch, Artillery Punch and Artillery Militia Punch are included.