[Previous entry: "Abergavenny"] [Main Index] [Next entry: "Devils, Giants and folklore"]
06/09/2010 Archived Entry: "St Barnabas"
This week sees the celebration of the feast of St Barnabas who is sometimes known as either Barnaby or Barnabus. A Cypriot Jew by birth, he is the patron saint of Cyprus but also of harvests. In England, his feast day is widely known as Barnaby Day, and when illustrations of the saint appear he is often depicted holding a hay rake.
Before Pope Gregory’s calendar changes of 1582, which were not adopted in England until 1752 because the Government suspected some kind of Catholic plot, the feast of St Barnabas was widely celebrated because it was considered the sunniest and longest day of the year. As a result of Gregory’s necessary changes to the calendar, the longest day was celebrated on June 21 which we now regard as the natural start of summer – it is the longest day and also the summer solstice.
Understandably, Barnaby Day featured strongly in our weather lore and one surviving, but now inaccurate, verse reads: Barnaby bright, Barnaby bright, longest day and shortest night. Barnaby bright is an old term for good weather but now, of course, Barnaby Day is not the longest day neither is it the summer solstice.
Because of its fine and sunny reputation, Barnaby Day was the time to begin the hay harvest – hence Barnaby’s role as patron saint of hay-time – and it was said “On the feast of St Barnabas, put your scythe to the grass.” On the continent, similar sayings helped agriculturalists. For example, the Spaniards would say, “On St Barnabas’ Day, the sun is here to stay,” whilst the French believed that rain on St Barnabas’ Day was good for grapes, and in some countries he was invoked against the hailstorms that are so damaging to the grape harvest.
Here in England, Barnaby Day fairs and horse fairs were frequently held, and in fact Appleby Horsefair which is one of England’s oldest continues to this day in Cumbria, when hundreds of gypsies and travellers converge to buy and sell horses, meet with friends and relations and celebrate their music, history and folklore.
Some of these fairs were staged on the actual date of Barnaby’s feast, and at other times on the nearest Saturday. Barnaby tarts were eaten too but I do not have a recipe for them, whilst before the Reformation many of our churches were decorated with garlands of flowers to mark the occasion.
In life, Barnabas seems to have been quite a character with little or no connection with our hay harvest. He is thought to have been related to St Mark and was described as a good man, full of the Holy Ghost and of faith. He was introduced to St Paul shortly after the latter’s conversion and invariably supported Paul in his preaching and in his disputes with St Peter.
Barnabas was sent to the new and fast-growing Christian centre at Antioch and took Paul from Tarsus to help him, and in fact Paul and Barnabas together went on what is probably the pilgrim Church’s first missionary journey, beginning with Cyprus. He is said to have been still working in Cyprus when Paul wrote his first letter to the Corinthians. Barnabas is also said to have founded the Church in Cyprus.
But at some stage, Paul turned against Barnabas. When leaving the side of Paul, Barnaby began to travel more widely and he visited Rome and Milan, becoming the bishop of Milan. It is said he visited the place of his birth at Salamis in Cyprus but his preaching angered the Jews to such an extent that they stoned him to death in AD 61.
His remains were buried near those of St Mark but in the seventh century, due to an invasion by the Saracens, his remains were removed. Various sites such as Milan, Toulouse, Naples, Bergamo, Genoa, Prague and Cremona, all claim to possess his remains.