December 4th in Poland sees the observance of Barbórka, the local name for the feast day of St. Barbara, patron saint of miners. Despite its dangers, or perhaps because of them, the mining profession has always held a high degree of prestige in Poland. The great value placed on coal during communism dictated that mining was one of the most well-respected occupations a Pole could have, along with which came special benefits and privileges. It is from this perspective that Barbórka – Poland’s nationally neglected celebration of mining culture and the men who toil in darkness deep underground - is still carried on with gusto in Silesia today. Combining ancient tradition, pageantry, fraternity and fun, Barbórka is undoubtedly one of Poland’s most strange and unique ‘holidays’.
The real essence of Barbórka actually takes place behind closed doors in the days leading up to December 4th during annual meetings of the ‘Karczmy Piwne’ (or loosely translated, the ‘Brewer’s Lodge’). Exclusive to the men of mining, the Karczmy Piwne gathers all those associated with mining, from pensioners to university professors, in the tavern of choice. Participants must be dressed in their ceremonial mining uniforms. Thus gloriously assembled, what transpires at the Karczmy Piwne is largely beyond the knowledge of those outside the brotherhood, but despite a high level of protocol, the atmosphere is one of friendly camaraderie and fun. Obviously the official mining anthem must be sung, after which participants divide into two groups based on age and rank and engage in a bit of friendly sparring in the form of songs, speeches, jokes and insults. Awards are granted to those who prove themselves deserving, and punishments, such as being mockingly put in the stocks or being forced to drink salty beer (heaven forbid), are meted out for such offences as speaking out of turn or wearing the uniform improperly. Plans for the holiday’s festivities are discussed and a feast of food and beer is enjoyed by all.
Nikiszowiec is probably the most ideal place in the entire country to appreciate Barbórka, where each year it's celebration is an all out community event. Traditional Barbórka festivities kick off early on the morning of the 4th when the residents of the district are awoken to the pounding drums and honking horns of mining marching bands as rank after rank of miners in full regalia wind through the neighbourhood. At 9:30 a huge mass is held in St. Anne’s Church, followed by special concerts on the adjacent square. Festivities and performances generally continue throughout the afternoon, culminating in a fireworks show after dark. Probably the best day of the year to be in this unique mining district, don’t miss it if you’re in the area.