Brighid, Goddess and Saint
Imbolc and other traditions
Ronald Hutton alludes to the main festal calendar points of the seasonal cycle in Tochmarc Emire, the story of the wooing of Emer, which dates to the tenth or eleventh century. One of these, Imbolc, marks the end of winter. With the adoption of the Roman calendar this festival was placed on the 1st of February. He points out that Imbolc, "must be pre-Christian but there is absolutely no direct testimony as to its early nature… the feast was important enough for its date to be dedicated subsequently to Brigid."1 Two books are essential to anyone who wishes to study St. Brigid's feast day in depth. These are: The Festival of Brigit 2 and for the Gaelic Scottish tradition, Carmina Gadelica3 (Charms of the Gaels).
Rituals and traditions performed on St. Brigid's eve and feast day centre upon the hearth and threshold of the home. People trust in Brigid's ability to keep them, their animals and crops safe. It is important for there to be signs that St. Brigid has visited the home and blessed it as the occupants sleep.
On St. Brigid's eve she is welcomed into the home. The head of the household stands at the threshold, knocks on the door and asks to be let in in the name of Brigid. Sometimes a straw doll, brideog, is carried into the home. In some places Biddies and Biddy Boys go from house to house carrying a brideog. Doors are always opened for this procession and in return for entertainment they are given food, coins or sweets. In Scotland girls dress in white make a Bride doll and carry it from house to house singing, Bride bhoidheach oigh nam mile beus4 (Beautiful Bride, virgin of a thousand charms). Mothers also make a Bride doll and prepare a basket for the leaba Bride (bed of Bride) which is placed by the hearth. On the threshold a woman calls, "Bride's bed is ready." Another replies, "Let Bride come in, Bride is welcome."5
A family meal, singing and dancing are often part of the festivities. Some of the food is placed outside as food for St. Brigid as she passes by in the night. Food might be given to the poor in the morning. People plait a crīosog Bridghe (St. Brigid's cross) woven of rushes or straw. These are hung over a door, window or mantel as a sign of welcome and left in the home or hung in the barn and stables for protection. Ronald Hutton notes that although such cross shapes are seen in prehistoric European art, "their linkage with St. Brigid's Eve was not noted until 1728."6
The King of Leinster promised Brigid as much land for her monastery as her mantle would cover. When she placed it on the ground it expanded in all directions. Pieces of cloth known as Brat Bride are left outside on St. Brigid's eve so that St. Brigid can touch the cloth which is used for healing, increasing fertility and aiding birth. Each year the blessing of Brigid on the cloth increases. "The mantle of Brigid be upon you" is a common Irish blessing. In the Hebrides Brigid is often called Brigdhe-nam-Brat, Bride of the Mantle or Plaid. Tradition tells us that St. Bride wove plaid on Iona.
A long straw rope woven into a circle or a hoop represent St. Brigid's Girdle. It is large enough for people to step through in order to receive Brigid's blessing and be reborn to health for the coming year. In the past mothers were fearful that fairies would take their new born and leave a changeling. Brigid's Girdle would place their babies under the care of Brigid, foster mother of Christ7 and midwife to Mary.
Smooring the hearth
"In Irish tradition, the process of covering the fire at night was designated coigilt na tine or 'raking the fire'8 In Ireland this act was accompanied by a special prayer:
"I rake this fire like everyone else,
Brigit below it with Mary on top;
Twelve angels of the angels of the graces,
Protecting my house til dawn."9
Alexander Carmichael records a similar Scottish prayer:
I will smoor the hearth
As Mary would smoor;
The encompassment of Bride and of Mary,
On the fire and on the floor,
And on the household all.10
On St. Brigid's morning the women examine the ashes for any sign of Brigid's footprint or fingerprint. If a mark is found fertility and the return of life is assured.
Pilgrimages to holy wells are traditionally part of the celebration of St. Brigid's day. Kildare has a well sacred to Brigid but perhaps the most popular place of pilgrimage is the well at Faughart, Brigid's place of birth. This well is located in the old cemetery. Pilgrims recite the rosary as they enter the cemetery. They then walk three times clockwise around the old ash tree by the ruins of the old parish church reciting Our Fathers and Hail Marys. The pilgrimage continues to the well where the pilgrims kneel in prayer before walking three times around the well and drinking the water. Along the pilgrim path there are three stones. At the Head Stone pilgrims place their head onto the stone and pray for a cure of any ailment of the head. At the Eye Stone pilgrims bathe their eyes in the water. At the Knee Stone pilgrims kneel in the marks on the stone and pray for a cure.11 Holy wells often have clouties, small pieces of cloth tied to bushes close by. There is a natural link between the cloth and the person who left it by the well. As the cloth disintegrates in the wind and the rain the petitioner's illnesses are cured. At wells sacred to Brigid it is common to find rosaries, crosses, and medals left as offerings.
The day after St. Brigid's day is the Feast of Candlemas when candles are blessed for use throughout the year. Candlemas is also known as The Presentation of Christ in the Temple. The Gospel of Luke says that Jesus was met by Anna and Simeon. Simeon held the baby Jesus and called him a Light to the World12. At this time of returning light candles are placed in windows and people look forward to Spring. But good weather is far from certain. The Isle of Man provides this weather saying, "Choud as hig y scell-ghreinney stiagh Laa'l Breeshey, hig y sniaghtey my jig laa boayldyn." If the sun shines on St. Bride's day, snow will come before Beltane13.
The bear and the wolf
Bears and wolves have been seen as shapeshifters able to transform themselves to appear as human. Bears were seen as super human, dangerous yet good, walking upright and able to embrace whilst making love. There are numerous stories throughout Europe of bears mating with human females and of bears retreating when shown a woman's genitals. They are associated with motherhood and nurturing. They hibernate and thus act as a reliable sign of the changing seasons. The emergence of the bear from its winter hibernation is proof that winter is at an end.14 Sēamas Ō Cathāin points out that there are eight words for bear in Irish.15 This is a lot considering that the bear disappeared from Ireland more than 4,000 years ago. Wolves survived in Ireland until the late 18th century and may have superseded bears as a companion animal to Brigit who is often depicted with a wolf by her side.
St. Brigid's day marks the first awakening and arrival of new life. Infants need a plentiful supply of milk in order to survive. St. Brigid owned a white cow that never ran dry and Brigid herself would only drink the milk of a white cow with red ears. Brigid's cow is sometimes seen as Glas Ghoibhneann a fairy cow that emerged from the sea. This cow's milk only dried up when it was milked into a sieve.16 A carving of St. Bride milking her cow can be seen on St. Michael's Tower on Glastonbury Tor.
The oyster catcher
This coastal bird is known as Giolla Bride, Servant of Bride, or Page of Bride in Gaelic. In Uist it is called Bridein, Bird of Bride. The sounds uttered by birds offer a near analogy to human speech. The call of the oyster catcher is very close to Bi glic, Be Wise in Gaelic. Maybe an admonition to be as wise as Brigit.
- The Stations of the Sun, Ronald Hutton, Oxford University Press 1996 p134
- The Festival of Brigit by Sēamas Ō Cathāin, DBA 1995 (No longer in print and second hand copies are now commanding a high price)
- Carmina Gadelica by Alexander Carmichael, Scottish Academic Press 1900 reprinted 1982 with Gaelic and English translation on facing pages. English translation Floris Books 1992.
- Carmina Gadelica Floris Books 1992 Note 70 p582
- Op. cit. p582
- The Stations of the Sun, Ronald Hutton, Oxford University Press 1996 p136
- Carmina Gadelica Floris Books 1992 Note 70 p580. The story that Bride was the serving maid at the inn in Bethlehem who saw a brilliant golden light in the stable and entered in time to act as midwife to Mary and receive the child Jesus into her arms.
- The Festival of Brigit by Sēamas Ō Cathāin, DBA 1995 p54
- Op. cit.
- Carmina Gadelica Floris Books 1992 Section 87 p96
- The Modern Pilgrimages at Faughart website
- Luke 2:21-38
- 1st of May (Samhain, Imbolc, Beltane and Lughnasa mark the turning of the seasons)
- For a full account of bear lore see, The Year of the Bear, Marjo Meriluoto-Jaakkola, Tampere Museums' Publications 2011. "In ancient times when Finns still lived in the forest, the animal cycle of the bear's birth and death was the basis of their calendar."
- The Festival of Brigit by Sēamas Ō Cathāin, DBA 1995 p27
- Op. cit. p143