December 4th in Poland sees the observance of 'Barbórka,' the local name for the feast day of St. Barbara of Nicomedia, patron saint of 'hard work and good death,' and therefore by extension: 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.
It's not only coal miners who celebrate Barbórka, however, but all of Poland's mining industries (including petroleum and salt), plus geologists, steelworkers, stone masons and other occupations that often seem to sacrifice personal safety for the opportunity to do an 'honest day's work.' Although St. Barbara is most closely tied to Silesia as the patron saint of the Katowice Archdiocese, she is also the patron saint of Kraków's prestigious AGH University of Science and Technology, and her feast day is celebrated in industries and institutions across Poland. Combining PRL tradition, pageantry, fraternity and fun, Barbórka is undoubtedly one of Poland’s most strange, niche and unique ‘holidays’.
Secret Rites of the 'Karczmy Piwne'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 Lodgings’ or 'Beer Taverns'). 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, fellowship and fun.
While the mysteries of the 'karczmy piwny' are multifold, 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.
Ironically, the 'Karczmy Piwny' doesn't have a long tradition dating back many generations, but is actually a more recent product of the PRL era when the communist authorities decided to undermine the more religious character of St. Barbara's Day by providing miners a structure within which to drink beer and commiserate over the recklessness of their profession, as long as they did so with a certain panache and crowed like roosters at dawn on December 4th. Result!