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Barborky, the (not so) well known Czech tradition

Barborky is a very old Czech tradition that persists until the present. However, there is much more to it than many people know and there’s even one particular thing Halloween borrowed from this tradition.

Czech people used to believe that Advent is a mysterious and magical time, a once-in-a-year opportunity to use the magic to one’s advantage. There were many pagan customs, some of them were suppressed by the church, others were adapted.

The 4th of December is the day of svatá Barbora in Czech, a commemorative day of St. Barbara from Nicomedia. On this day, all women called Barbora celebrate their name day but that’s not all there’s to this date. If you happen to be in the Czech Republic on this day, you might see people cutting cherry twigs and bringing them home. That would be the well-preserved part of the tradition. Then there’s the other one, maybe far more interesting, and I’m going to tell you about both.

Cherry Blossoms at Christmas

barborkyBarborky is the folkloric name of the cherry twigs (less commonly also other fruit tree twigs) you bring home on the 4th of December to keep in a vase and see if they blossom before Christmas. It’s a pagan tradition the roots of which we can hardly trace. Under the pressure of the church some people adopted the narrative, that blooming twigs at Christmas symbolize the coming of Jesus, however, the original intention of this custom was different.

Young girls used to cut cherry twigs and keep them in water until Christmas to see if they’d get married next year. Some girls cut more twigs, one for each boy they fancied, then gave each twig the name of one of the boys and – you guessed it – the twig that got the first blossom would be the one. Some families with several young girls ready for marriage had one twig for each girl and the one whose twig blossomed first would be the one to marry next year.

In some places in Slovácko (Moravian Slovakia) girls used to tear the twigs with their teeth and instead of putting them in water they planted them in pots with soil and watered them. In Važice, girls wore their blooming twig tucked in the belt to the midnight mass at Christmas and whoever took that twig was believed to be the future husband.

Nowadays, it’s not just young girls anymore, people simply cut Barborky because they like having them at home and watching them blossom.

Women in White

„My tři Barborky jsme,

z daleké země jdeme

a dárky Vám neseme.

Neseme, neseme, velice to krásné,

kdo se s námi modlit bude, tomu je dáme

a kdo nebude, tomu hodně nalupáme.“

“We are the three Barborkas,

we come from a faraway land

and come bearing gifts for you.

We bring very beautiful gifts

to give to those who pray with us

and we’ll spank a lot those who don’t.”

There’s one more tradition connected to the St. Barbara’s Day, far less common nowadays, though still well-preserved in some towns and villages. Although the name Barborky literally means “small Barbaras” (Barborka is the diminutive for Barbora and the -y at the end indicates plural), this one is all about grown women and it’s roots are much more connected to Christianity than the previous, more ancient tradition.

Women dressed all in white and wearing white shoes or being barefoot used to go through the village on the evening of the 3rd of December, usually in groups of three or six. They represented female ghosts and depending on the location they entered the houses or not, knocked on doors or windows, and gave sweets and fruit to good children. They also carried canes to spank (or at least scare) children who were not so good. Sometimes they mumbled the words “modli se” (pray) or the garbled form “mulisi”. You can see a similarity to the tradition of Mikuláš that is much more common nowadays.


Of course, there were regional differences. In some places, the women enhanced their scary appearance by combing their hair over their faces. In some villages, they were going around with white sheets or veils over their faces and the least scary Barborky were those who wore loose hair with flower wreath or a crown on the top of their heads. In some places, they wore red or blue ribbons or covered their faces in flour to appear even more white.

The scariest Barborky come from the villages of Rataje u Bechyně and Nuzice. They were not only those who combed their hair over their faces but mothers often used these characters to scare children who misbehaved. Children believed that St. Peter let down ladders from heaven once a year so the Barborky could climb down to earth with gifts for the good children and canes for the bad ones. The women let themselves be known by rattling the canes on the streets.

Barborky in Rataje u Bechyně and Nuzice, source: magazine Český lid

Sometimes, the Barborky carried around a carved pumpkin with a candle to scare the children. The pumpkin was attached to a long pole that the women placed in the windows and at the same time they made noise with the canes.

Some Barborky used to go around accompanied by an angel or even the devil or a person dressed as a goat. In some places they were given money for the treats they were giving to the children and they sang a song about “Barbara, daughter of a furious father” which was a reference to St. Barbara’s father who was a pagan and didn’t want his daughter to explore Christianity.

In the region of Haná (Hanakia), the laundrywomen sang songs about the necessity to be christened before death, whilst around Velké Meziříčí and Šumava, people believed that blooming wreaths would help them expose the witches among them. In Cidlina, an older woman dressed as a nun used to wander alone and spanked children who didn’t want to pray.

Barbora’s Light

St. Barbara is also the patron of the miners. Therefore, miners and generally people in mining areas used to light the so called Barborčino světlo (Little Barbara’s light) on the 4th of December and this light was passed through the village.

Barborky Nowadays

As was already mentioned, some of these customs are still alive. Having cherry twigs at home is very common and even the more scary tradition of women dressed in white persists in some places. In few villages, such as Rudolfov, the ceremonial passing of the light of Barbara takes place every year.

source: Milan Škoch,

In Kutná Hora, there are celebrations on St. Barbora every 4th of December as she is the patron of the town.

source: Town of Borovany

And if you though this was it for scary Czech Advent traditions, you’re wrong. Just when you bounce back from the scares of St. Barbara, there comes the day of St. Lucy, the article will be published on that particular date, the 13th of December.

To read more about the Czech traditions, visit the category Customs and Traditions.

Source of the drawing in the featured picture: Čeněk Zibrt. Masopust držíme. Praha : Nákladem F. Šimáčka, 1910

Sources: (of The Faculty of Economics and Management in CZU Prague),

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