Happy Friday Everyone!
I hope I find you all well. So as we near the end of January it seems these winter days will never end but I have good news! According to the ancient Celts, next Thursday 1 February heralds the beginnings of Spring and was (and in some places still is) celebrated as the festival of Imbolc. It is one of the 4 main Celtic festivals, the others being Beltane, Lughnasadh and Samhain. It is also St. Brigid’s Day in the Christian calendar but more of her later.
Imbolc or Imbolg translates to “in the belly” in Irish and is a reference to the pregnancy of ewes which would happen around this time. In astronomical terms, Imbolc is the midpoint between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox so strictly speaking the actual day will fall somewhere between the 2nd and the 7th February. The origins of the festival date back to Neolithic times. We know this because of the alignment of certain megalithic monuments.
The inner chamber in The Mound of The Hostages at The Hill of Tara (pictured) is aligned with the rising sun on the days when Imbolc and Samhain fall.
Imbolc was a celebration of the early days of Spring. Hearth fires were lit as well as candles to represent the increasing power of the sun. It was a time to celebrate renewal and growth and it was also connected to the lambing season. At the heart of it all, Imbolc is deeply associated with the pagan goddess Brigit and in turn the christian Saint Brigid and the feast day of St. Brigid’s Day.
It is widely believed that St.Brigid is a christianized version of the goddess although there are others who claim that the saint came way before the mention of any goddess! I’m no scholar so I’m not here to prove anything one way or the other. However, I am fascinated by the folklore and legend surrounding both. So let’s find out more;
In Irish Mythology, the goddess Brigid (or Brighid, Brigit or Brid meaning exalted one) was the daughter of The Dagda (the Good God) and the wife of Bres, a king of the Tuatha Dé Danann. She bore a son, Ruadán.
She was central in the celebration of Imbolc and was the goddess of healing, poetry and and arts and crafts-especially blacksmithing. As a healing goddess she was believed to be present to watch over the birth of every child. Healing wells dedicated to her can still be found in Ireland to this day. She is also strongly associated with fire and is regarded as a guardian of the home and the hearth.
It is also believed that she was responsible for introducing the practice of “keening” in Ireland. Keening was a combinbation of singing, weeping and wailing to lament a death. It is said that this was first performed by the goddess as she mourned the death of her son Ruadán who had been slain.
Ireland’s female patron saint was born in 451 in Faughart in county Louth. She was the daughter of Dubhthach, a Pagan chieftain and Brocca, a Christian pict who was reportedly baptized by St.Patrick. The story goes that her nobleman father sold both Brigid and her mother into slavery. Inspired by St.Patrick, she was determined to become a Christian and give her life to God. She is regarded one of the earliest Christian nuns and founded many monasteries, most notably the settlement at Kildare which she founded around 480.
St. Brigid died on 1 February 525 and was buried in a tomb in the Abbey she founded in Kildare. Her remains were later moved to Downpatrick where she was laid to rest with Ireland’s other patron saints, St. Patrick and St. Columcille.
During her life, she was reported to have performed many miracles including turning water into beer. My favorite legend surrounding St. Brigid is the tale of how she came to acquire the land to set up her convent at Kildare. The story goes that the local chieftain would only give her the land which was covered by her cloak. She then spread her cloak on the ground and the horrified chieftain looked on as the cloak miraculously began to spread. He begged her to make it stop for fear of losing all his lands. She did so and this became her land for her convent. Another story goes that the ground was leveled by her spreading cloak to give us the Kildare flatlands known as the Curragh.
St. Brigid’s Day Customs
1. Making St.Brigid’s Crosses
St. Brigid’s crosses are still made every 1 February in some parts of Ireland. They are usually made of rushes or straw and are traditionally hung above the entrance to the home for protection.
It is widely believed that the origins of the cross and it’s symbolism are pagan but typically there’s a story of how St. Brigid came to make the first cross. The tale tells of a pagan chieftain who was on his death bed and the saint was sent for to teach him about Christ. His illness had made him delirious so Brigid gathered some rushes from the floor and began to fashion them into a cross. As she explained it’s meaning, his delirium calmed and he converted to Christianity before his death.
Of course, along with the shamrock and the harp, the St. Brigid’s cross has become a lasting and recognizable Irish emblem and is particularly popular in Celtic Jewelry design. One of my favorites from The Irish Store collection is the pendant pictured above and features stunning accents of Connemara Marble.
2. Visiting Holy Wells
There are many holy wells in Ireland dedicated to St. Brigid, most notably in Kildare. Here the well is fed by a spring which runs underground then overground past a modern day statue of the saint. Again, the origins of making these pilgrimages to these wells to request healing and fertility date back to pagan times. These pilgrimages continue to this day.
3. Biddy’s Day County Kerry
My favorite custom associated with St. Brigid’s day is the Biddy’s Day Festival in Killorglin, county Kerry. Biddy groups continue an age-old tradition of carrying a Brideog doll from house to house (including public houses!) to keep away evil spirits and guarantee the household luck, wealth and fertility. The festival culminates in the crowning of the King of the Biddys and a torchlight procession through the town.
As always thank you all so much for joining me and a Happy St. Brigid’s Day to all!
See you next time,
Slán go fóill!