Today is St. Brigid’s Day. Brigid was born in around 451 to a pagan father and a Christian mother, a slave woman. While pregnant, the slave woman met up with a Bishop who was a follower of St. Patrick and he prophesied that Brigid would grow to be a truly pious woman who would do great things with her life. Her father’s wife was not happy to have Brigid or her mother around and sold them to a Druid to be returned to her father when she was older. Brigid’s mother strived hard to provide for her and it is said that a white red-eared cow (rare in Ireland where Brigid was born and raised) provided all the food that Brigid needed to grow healthy and strong. This is why one of the St. Brigid’s Day traditions states that on this day Brigid will come, bringing her white red-eared cow with her and people leave out oat cakes and butter for Brigid and corn for her cow on their windowsills.
When Brigid was 10, she was sent back to her father and he put her to work in the dairy. He soon became enraged with Brigid’s charitable practices though as she would give much of what the dairy produced away to those less fortunate. While still quite young, Brigid went to visit a Christian mission. There was present there a Bishop who was telling of a dream he had in which he saw the Virgin Mary – as he was telling his story, Brigid came into the room and he immediately said that it was she who he had seen in his dream. This was taken as yet another sign of the special grace of God that had been bestowed on Brigid. Because of her father’s anger with her, Brigid was sent back to live with her mother and the Druid. She continued her charitable work there, always churning butter in 13 portions in honour of Christ and the apostles. The largest portion she would give away to the poor and yet, no matter how much she gave away, their pantry was always full. When the Druid saw this miracle, he and his wife converted to Christianity and gave Brigid and her mother their freedom.
Brigid returned to her father’s home but he and his wife weren’t too happy to see her. He took her to sell her again into servitude for the King of Leinster who was a Christian. While he was speaking with the king about his problems with her, being that she was always giving away his belongings to the poor, a leper approached the chariot that Brigid had been left in, and she gave away her father’s sword to him. The King met Brigid and was so taken with her devotion to the faith, he convinced her father to give Brigid her freedom and he reimbursed him for the sword with one of his own.
Now as a free woman, Brigid would be expected to marry someone in her father’s clan. She, however, didn’t want to marry, instead she devoted herself to Christ. Legend states that she even chose, like St. Rose of Lima, to disfigure her beautiful face so that no men would seek her out for marriage anymore. Brigid went on to form the first religious community for women in Ireland and so has the distinction of being the first nun in her country. She and her community had a meeting with the Bishop, St. Mel and as soon as he saw her, he stated that he recognized her as the woman he had prophesied about while she was still in her mother’s womb. The Bishop consecrated Brigid and her community and legend states that the moment he did, her face was healed and she was beautiful once more.
The King who had convinced her father of providing Brigid with her freedom provided land in Kildare for Brigid’s community to establish a convent. Irish legend says that Brigid desired a piece of land near an oak tree that she loved and when she was refused that, she told the King she would accept any land that her mantle could cover. He agreed and it’s said that her mantle miraculously covered all of Curragh. Because of this, her convent was named The Church of the Oak and on St. Brigid’s Day it is tradition to hang handkerchiefs and ribbons from trees and clotheslines as a representation of Brigid’s mantle. The hope is that Brigid’s spirit will pass by and touch them and in doing so, they will be infused with healing powers.
During one of Brigid’s travels through the region, she came upon a dying man – a pagan chieftain. She sat with him and as she did, she began weaving a cross out of some rushes found on the floor. The man asked her about it and she told him about Jesus and what the cross symbolized. The man accepted Christ and was baptized prior to his death. For this reason, another St. Brigid’s Day custom is to weave crosses out of rushes or reeds. It is then blessed with holy water and the following words are recited: May the blessing of God, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost be on this cross and on the place where it hangs and on everyone who looks on it. It is placed on the family’s front door and left there until the following St. Brigid Day. At that time, the old cross is burned in the fire and a new cross is fashioned. Want to make your own Brigid’s cross? Gingerbread Snowflakes has a wonderful post on just how to do that here: http://gingerbreadsnowflakes.com/node/143
Brigid became well known for her healing abilities and for her wisdom. She was so loved by the people that they began using the blessing “Brigid and Mary be with you.” When Brigid died (around 525), her community built a fire in her honour and kept it burning until 1220. It was then relit and tended for another 400 years until put out during the Protestant Reformation. St. Brigid’s association with fire on her feast day of February 1 was often celebrated as part of a three day celebration of light – being combined with Candelmas on February 2, and the Feast of St. Blaise on February 3. This association created the custom of building bonfires on St. Brigid’s day and in some areas those fires are built on February 1 and then maintained right through the 3rd.
Want a delicious Irish recipe to serve on St. Brigid’s Day? There’s a recipe for Colcannon over on my cooking blog, The Red Apple Tearoom: http://islandtearoom.wordpress.com/2010/02/01/colcannon/
The pagan celebration of Imbolc also occurs on February 1 (February 2 in some places and others say it begins on the eve of January 31 and continues through to the eve of the 2nd). Imbolc is seen as a celebration of early spring. It’s the halfway point of winter and since it’s the time when the first crocuses and snowdrops begin to appear, it is said, just like Brigid, to be a reminder of hope that spring is on its way. It is associated with customs like spring cleaning and in many places, the beginning of the spring agricultural season.
Imbolc also involved honouring Brigid, but the Brigid being honoured here is the Celtic goddess of fire. Same Brigid? Well it depends on who you ask and even then the answer might be “yes and no”. Some claim that the festival celebrating the pagan goddess came first and that the stories of St. Brigid of Ireland are simply myths made up to turn a pagan holiday into a Christian one. Others believe that the Celtic goddess is the same woman who was then granted sainthood by the Church – pagan and Christian in one.
Whatever the truth is, the Christian and pagan celebrations of Brigid have in many ways melded into one, sharing many similar mythos and traditions. According to the Druids, as a baby, Brigid was fed milk from a white red-eared cow (sound familiar?) but in this case they believe it to be a cow from the Otherworld. Another story tells of Brigid’s encounter of two lepers at her sacred well in Kildare. They asked her to heal them. She told them to take turns bathing each other with the well water and they would be healed. Once the first one had been bathed and healed, he was disgusted by the sight of the second man and refused to touch him. His leprosy returned. Brigid placed her mantle around the second man and the touch of it healed him. Again, this led to a custom similar to that of the Christians – a scrap of cloth would be placed on the front door of a home and in the morning, if there was a mark on it, it was believed that Brigid had touched it and infused it with her healing powers.
Remember the oak tree that Brigid so loved? Well, in pagan tradition, that tree is an ancient oak believed to be sacred – so sacred that no one was allowed to bring a weapon near it. Brigid’s convent is believed to have been a college for training priestesses and the custom of tossing coins into a fountain is said to have originated with Brigid partly because of the sacred well present at her shrine and partly because it was said that any Brigid rewarded anyone who made an offering to her. People began to toss coins into this fountain as their offering. Pagans also make Brigid’s crosses as part of their celebrations and as she is associated with fire and this holiday is connected in many ways with the Christian celebration of Candelmas, it is customary to light white candles in her honour as well.
Beautiful photos of Imbolc over on Gingerbread Snowflake: http://gingerbreadsnowflakes.com/node/146 Be sure to check out the rest of her blog too. There’s lots more information on Brigid, Imbolc, Candelmas, and Groundhog Day there and many other great posts with lots of crafty ideas to share!
More on Candelmas and the Feast of St. Blaise in the coming days!