Crosses woven from rushes or grasses for the Imbolc festival are one of the best known customs associated with Brighid. If rushes were not available many Irish families would cross sticks or matches and place them over the door on St. Brighid's eve. Stories are told of St. Brighid nursing her pagan father. While he slept she wove a cross from the rushes that were strewn across the floor. When he awoke St. Brighid used the cross to illustrate the story of Good Friday. Her father recovered his health and was baptised.
Certain rituals were recorded. The rushes were usually pulled rather than cut. They were often gathered in silence and in many families it was young women who collected them. The crosses themselves were hung in the home and the byre. Practice was varied. Some hung one over the door whilst others hung them over every door and window or in the roof space. In some areas the crosses were replaced every year whilst in others they were kept for ever, the number in the roof space increasing with the age of the house. The crosses are believed to protect the family and their animals from illness and ill-luck and to prevent the intrusion of spirits intent on harm.
In both Ireland and Scotland there are rituals involving an image of Brighid in the form of a doll or dressed butter churn or churn staff. These are processed from house to house by the children who beg for ribbons, flowers and other items to decorate the doll. Gifts of dairy products, rolls, boxty bread, pancakes or bannocks and money are given by the householders in honour of Miss Biddy.
After the procession and celebratory meal the image is placed in a bed of woven straw and a small wand placed beside her. The wand may symbolise the churn staff representing Brighid's role in assuring an abundant flow of milk, the shepherd's crook representing Brighid's protection, or spring fertility. The lady of the house then stands at the threshold and calls into the night, “Bride is come”, or “Bride's bed is ready”.
The “Bride Bed” is then placed in the hearth overnight. In the morning the ashes are checked for any sign that Brighid has passed by. Marks in the ashes that could be the footsteps of Bride are a sign that Brighid has blessed the threshold and hearth. The lambing and calving will go well, there will be a good harvest. and there may even be a newborn child in the home.
St. Brighid is said to have asked the King of Leinster for land to build an abbey. It was agreed that she could have as much land as she could cover with her cloak. Needless to say the cloak expanded to cover all the land she needed for her foundation. Another story tells us that once she was soaked in a storm and hung her cloak on a sunbeam to dry. In the Hebrides there are stories told of Brighid wrapping the new born Christ child in her cloak as she acted as Mary's midwife in Bethlehem.
There is a belief that Brighid lends her healing powers to any piece of cloth that is left out at Imbolc. This piece of cloth is known as Brighid's Mantle and it is said that Brighid blesses the cloth as she passes by the house. With each passing year and Imbolc blessing the mantle gains healing power. Brighid's Mantle was at one time part of the Irish midwife's equipment and would be placed over expectant mothers and birthing animals to ensure a safe birth. It would also be wrapped around any part of the body that ailed to aid healing.
To make the home more welcoming for Brighid's visit a rush mat was laid outside for her to kneel on, a little cake or bread would be left on the step and perhaps a sheaf of corn for her white cow.
In the west of Ireland the youth would go the rounds of the village at Imbolc carrying St. Brigid's Girdle. This was a hoop woven from straw. At each house the family is expected to step through the hoop to obtain Brigid's blessing and be reborn to good health for the coming year. In older times it is said that larger hoops were also made so that the cattle could pass through them. Chants associated with Brighid's Girdle survive:
“Brighid's girdle is my own girdle, The girdle with four crosses.
Arise, housewife and go through three times.
May whoever goes through my girdle be sevenfold better next year.”
It is not so long ago that mothers were fearful that fairies would take their new born baby and leave a changeling in its place. In some areas smaller versions of Brighid's Girdle were worn as protection against fairy abduction. Wearing the girdle the mother placed herself under the care of Brighid, foster mother and midwife.