Barbara -- one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers -- was the beautiful daughter of a rich and powerful pagan named Dioscuros. She grew up in Nikomedia (in modern Turkey). To keep her a virgin, her father locked her in a tower when he was away, a tower with only two windows. Upon his return from one journey, he found three windows in the tower instead of two. When he asked Barbara about this, she confessed that she'd become a Christian after being baptized by a priest disguised as a physician, and that she'd asked that a third window be made as a symbol of the Holy Trinity.
She was then denounced by her father, who was ordered by the local authorities to put her to death. She escaped from her tower, but her father caught and killed her. When he dealt the death blow, he was immediately struck by lightning. She is depicted in art holding a small tower or standing near a tower or near a canon, and holding a chalice and/or the palm of martyrdom.
During her time in the tower, she kept a branch from a cherry tree which she watered with water from her cup. On the day of she was killed, the cherry branch she'd kept blossomed. From this comes "Barbarazweig," the custom of bringing branches into the house on December 4 to hopefully bloom on Christmas (some reserve the custom for the unmarried).
Of course, the branches might not bloom at all, but if the temperature outside has been around 32 to 40 degrees for six weeks, they most likely will. Apple, chestnut, pear, peach, forsythia, plum, lilac and jasmine branches will work, also, but cherry is the tradition.
Cut stems today (the milder the weather, the better), looking for thinner branches with swollen buds. Mash the ends and put the branches in a vase of cool, not icy, water with a little sugar in it for several hours. Leave branches for a few days in a cool place. As soon as the buds appear to swell bring them into a warm room (not too close to the source of heat). Spritz them from time to time with lukewarm water, and when the blooms appear, place the branches on a window sill to give them lots of light and keep them in cooler air so that the blooms will stay fresh longer. Change water every day. Once they are in full bloom, re-cut the stems and put them in water with a little sugar, a tiny bit of bleach, a penny and a dissolved aspirin.
If the branches bloom exactly on 25 December, it is a sign of "good luck," and the person whose branches produces the most blossoms is said to be "Mary's favorite." Maria von Trapp of the Trapp Family Singers (think "Sound of Music") wrote in "Around the Year with the Trapp Family" (Pantheon Books, 1955) that the Austrian legend is that if a person's branch blossoms on Christmas Day, he or she will be married in the following year :
There is a group of fourteen saints known as the "Fourteen Auxiliary Saints." [Ed. also called the "Holy Helpers"] In Austria they are sometimes pictured together in an old chapel, or over a side altar of a church; each one has an attribute by which he may be recognized--St. George will be shown with a dragon, or St. Blaise with two candles crossed. One of these Auxiliary Saints is St. Barbara, whose feast is celebrated on December 4th. She can be recognized by her tower (in which she was kept prisoner) and the ciborium surmounted by the Sacred Host. St. Barbara is invoked against lightning and sudden death. She is the patron saint of miners and artillery men and she is also invoked by young unmarried girls to pick the right husband for them.
On the fourth of December, unmarried members of the household are supposed to go out into the orchard and cut twigs from the cherry trees and put them into water. There is an old belief that whoever's cherry twig blossoms on Christmas Day can expect to get married in the following year. As most of us are always on tour at this time of the year, someone at home will be commissioned to "cut the cherry twigs." These will be put in a vase in a dark corner, each one with a name tag, and on Christmas Day they will be eagerly examined; and even if they are good for nothing else, they provide a nice table decoration for the Christmas dinner.
They are also used to decorate the creche. The French (Provencale) variation of this custom requires the family to germinate wheat on beds of wet cotton in three separate saucers, keeping them moist throughout Advent. When the contents of the three saucers -- which symbolize the three Persons of the Most Holy Trinity -- are nice and green, they are used to adorn the creche at Christmas. The French saying is "Quand le blé va bien, tout va bien" (“Quand lou blad ven ben, tout va ben” in the dialect of Provence), or "When the wheat goes well, everything goes well."
St. Barbara is the patroness of artillerymen, fireworks manufacturers, firemen, stone masons, against sudden death, against fires, and against storms (especially lightning storms). She is usually depicted in art standing next to or holding the tower in which she was imprisoned, with a chalice, the palm of martyrdom, a feather, and/or a cannon
Note: the Feast of St. Barbara is not celebrated liturgically in the 1962 Calendar, but you will see it celebrated liturgically if your priest uses an older Missal. Nonetheless, 4 December is still her "Feast Day" which may be celebrated informally.