The first of February is a special date in the Irish calendar. For many people, it is the feast day of St Brigid; to others is linked to Imbolc (one of the four important festivals in the Celtic calendar), while for some, it marks the beginning of spring.
As a child, I always looked forward to this day, certainly much more than St Brigid’s male counterpart, Patrick. As someone born and reared on a farm, I felt St Patrick’s day was celebrated by those who lived in the town and cities where elaborate parades marched in straight lines with people fully togged wearing flamboyant outfits as the crowds waved at them. https://devlinfarmlife.com/st-patricks-day-whats-it-all-about-how-an-irish-celebration-took-over-the-world/
For me, St Brigid’s day will be forever etched in my childhood memory as the one day of the year where I spent the day at school making crosses out of rushes and learning about this Irish saint. I know I enjoyed the hands-on craft of making crosses, but I can’t deny it was also a day when I didn’t have to engage with school learning.
As I have moved into adulthood, I’ve realised that many Christian feast days in Ireland are built on older pre-Christian calendar dates, and St. Brigid’s Day is no different.
Who was St Brigid, and why is she celebrated in Ireland?
St Brigid is the Patroness of Ireland, born 450-51 AD, in Faughart, Co Louth. Her father, Dubhthach, was a Pagan Chieftain, and her mother was Broicseach, an enslaved person. Brigid was born into slavery. Her mother was sold to another Chieftain, and Brigid was sent to be raised and educated by the druids. When she was old enough, Brigid returned to her father’s home as a semi enslaved person.
According to legend, St Patrick inspired her to convert to Christianity. She wanted to serve her life, looking after the sick and the poor. This annoyed her father. According to tradition, she gave away her father’s jewel-encrusted sword to a leper, making him finally concede and accept her way of life. When she turned eighteen, Brigid joined the convent of St Macaille, entering the religious life where she inspired many girls to follow her.
It is believed that Brigid visited the King of Leinster looking for land to build an Abbey. The King refused, and Brigid prayed that he would change his mind. She begged the King, ‘give me as much land as my cloak will cover?’ The King laughed and agreed. She began to spread out the cloak onto the ground. Her four friends held a corner of the blanket and started to walk north, south, east and west. The cloak began to grow, eventually covering many acres of land. The King realised that Brigid was a holy woman and gave her the land to build her Abbey. He helped her with food and other supplies as the years went by. The King became a Christian and helped the poor. This Miracle of the Cloak is believed to be the first of Brigid miracles.
St Brigid Cross
There are a few stories associated with the cross, but this is the tale my grandmother used to tell me when I was a child., Brigid was called to the bed of a pagan Chieftain who was dying. Her role was to watch over him. While sitting by his side, she gathered some rushes off the floor and weaved them into a cross. The chieftain asked her what she was making, and Brigid explained the story about Jesus. Upon hearing what the cross stood for, he converted and was baptised before dying.
In Ireland, the St Brigid’s cross was iconic and for the Irish diaspora but unknown elsewhere. In primary school, I learned the craft of making the cross and- it was something I was particularly proud of as it was not easy to construct. Rushes were widely available around my family farm’s fields (waterlogged fields associated with poor drainage). Unfortunately, those who didn’t live on a farm or had no access to these pastures relied on us farming children to gather enough rushes so that every child in the school could go home with some sort of cross.
I remember the teacher explaining how kind Brigid was and how we should follow her example, so off we would go gathering rushes for ourselves and our fellow students. My siblings and I would arrive home later that day full up with the knowledge of St Brigid and six or more perfectly assembled green crosses. My grandmother, a stickler for tradition, would sprinkle each of them with holy water and distribute them around our house. Two of the crosses would be placed over our home’s front and back doors. The St Brigid crosses stood alongside the horseshoe (another good luck item), protecting our home from unforeseen disasters such as fires.
Other Traditions surrounding St Brigid
Like many people living on a farm, you get a better sense of the seasons. In my family, the first of February was the official end of the winter, ‘we turned the dark corner,’ my grandmother used to say. Growing up, we kept cows and Brigid powers extended to them. After we would scatter the newly made crosses at various places in our home, my grandmother would take the old ones from the previous year and place them in the barns where our cows sheltered. The crosses would protect the cow, her calf and the milk. Cows were an essential part of a farm, and farmers believed that the cross would protect them from evil spirits and the like. https://www.museum.ie/en-IE/Museums/Country-Life/Engage-And-Learn/Museum-at-Home/Make-a-St-Brigid-s-Cross
From February onwards, there will be a stretch in the day, the darkness will lift, and we’ll move forward celebrating the many festivals that lie ahead. I’ll be building a few crosses as I keep up this yearly tradition. We still need a few of these symbols to ward off spirits or viruses, whichever you prefer.