Slovenian miners celebrate their day on 3 July, remembering the five-day hunger strike commenced on 3 July 1934 by miners from the region of Zasavje. Since 1961, when the first generation students graduated from the then School of Industry and Mining in Velenje, miners from Velenje have celebrated their day with the jump over a leather apron, a traditional initiation rite for young miners.
The tradition of the jump over a leather apron goes back to the 16th century, when a formal ceremony of welcoming novices was introduced in Czech and Slovakian mines. It has been maintained in the more or less the same form in some European countries (Austria, the Czech Republis), including Slovenia, where this is the way of welcoming mining and geotechnology graduates of the Faculty of Natural Sciences and Engineering in the miners’ guild in Velenje.
The tradition was and still is based on miners’ reception for novices. According to the original custom, young miners had to jump over a mining shaft. When shaft openings became too wide, the jump over a shaft was replaced by the jump over a leather apron. A leather apron is a piece of calfskin with a strap and belts, formerly worn by miners around their waists to cover their bottoms. Miners used the leather to slide into the mine, and for protection against damp.
Nowadays, dressed in mining uniforms, novices come to the reception in single file to indicate old narrow mine passages. They perform the ritual by stepping onto a barrel placed next to two older members of the community, who hold the calfskin, stating their personal data, telling the code word, answering any possible questions of the head of the ceremony, drinking a mug of beer and jumping off the barrel towards their mentor. By jumping over a leather apron, all new miners get their mentors, patrons who advise them in work and life related issues.
After the jumps, all novices make a solemn promise to perform their work duties in an honest way, respecting the tradition of the guild. They hand over a key and a lamp to a younger generation of mining students, toasting with a mug of beer by exclaiming: “Long live our Good luck!”
Older miners bid them welcome in the miners’ guild with a “Good Luck” and a strong handshake, greeting them in their midst. This marks the end of the official ceremony, which is followed by a social celebration full of older miners’ recollections.
The firm belief in mutual support is a source of strength for miners to overcome the fear of the mysterious forces of the underground world, and a bond that makes this profession something special. The miners’ greeting is “GOOD LUCK”, as mining is where luck really matters. The luck to find the ore and the luck to return from the mine safely.
For formal celebrations and memorial services, miners wear their uniforms. The mining uniform is comprised of a black suit, a black cap and white gloves. As a special feature, the jacket holds 28 golden buttons, which symbolize the age of death of St Barbara, patron saint of miners.
When miners troops was set up in the Velenje coal mine in 1947, its members first used brown uniforms with green badges. After two years, the traditional black mining uniform was introduced, which is still used today and is known in the mining and coal mining industries across Europe. The same uniform was used by miners back in the time of the former Kingdom of Yugoslavia.
Wearing a mining uniform used to be, and still is, an honour “earned” only by diligent, hardworking miners, or shock workers. Using his judgement, a supervisor decided which one of his staff can have this honour. Many miners got their uniforms during the term of office of director Nestl Žgank, the designer and engineer behind the modern town of Velenje. In those days, uniforms were given to up to 30 or 40 miners per month.
At first, the commander of the mining troops wore the same uniform as the rest of its members. In mid 1960’s black badges on his uniform were replaced by golden ones, and a golden braid was added to his trousers. The commander wears a green stripe across his chest and a miners’ baton in his hand, which originates in a staff used by supervisors in the mine to take measurements, test the mine’s ceiling and walls in order to determine and prevent collapse, and mark the pillars left behind in one shift.
Nowadays, miners can be seen in Velenje wearing their formal uniform at the annual celebration with the jump over a leather apron on the miners’ day. Uniforms are also used for guards of honour and memorial services for the deceased miners.
Trusting the omnipotence of the patron saint intercession, the Slovenian nation – like many other European nations – venerates St Barbara as part of the Fourteen Holy Helpers, especially as protection against the dangers of our last hour.
Facing constant danger underground, miners chose St Barbara as their patron saint. This saint even gave name to some secular miners’ organisations in Westfalia, the Netherlands and Belgium.
She is also the patron saint of soldiers, especially artillerymen, those who work with explosives, construction workers, the wounded and all those facing constant threat and death; as well as, interestingly, thieves.
The people of Slovenia know St Barbara for her numerous depictions showing her with a tower, chalice and host, often in the company of St Catherine and St Margaret. The memory of her lives in folk songs in all Slovenian regions. Her legend also resounds on Slovenian soil, where people’s imagination made it even more unique.
The legend places Barbara in Nicomedia, Asia Minor, where she was introduced to Christianity by the great Christian scholar Origen. She was a daughter of pagan king Dioscorus, who lived in the second half of the 3rd century. He kept Barbara, a girl graced with great beauty, shut up in a tower. To respect her father’s wishes, Barbara should marry a prince, believe in pagan gods and make offerings to them. Refusing to do so, she was thrown in jail and tortured. She was sentenced to death by beheading, which was carried out by her own father. Right after this event, he was struck and killed by lightning.
The tower used in the saint’s depictions is a symbol of captivity; while the chalice, also one of St Barbara’s attributes, represents sustenance and a source of strength she found in her strong faith.
According to the legend, Barbara converted many to Christianity with her miracles, and died a martyr around the year of 306, during the reign of emperor Maximinus Daia.
The feast day of St Barbara, 4 December, used to be a day off work for miners in Velenje before World War I, starting with a holy mass in St. George’s church in Škale, during which a brass band replaced organ music. The band later also accompanied a procession of miners in formal attire to the official celebration, which ended with a large ball in hotel Rak in Velenje.
Premogovnik Velenje celebrates the feast day of St. Barbara with a ceremony to recognise the employees who obtain higher levels of education while working.