Yes-according to the ancient Celts, February 1st is the official start of spring! This is welcome news to us all as we all continue to shiver our way through these cold winter days. We have further cause for celebration in Ireland as 2023 sees the inaugural year of the St. Brigids Day/Imbolc bank holiday which takes place next Monday giving us all an extra long weekend!
Along with the ancient festivals of Beltane, Lughnasadh and Samhain. February 1st marks the festival of Imbolc meaning “in the belly”. This referred to the pregnancy of ewes and the upcoming lambing season. The festival celebrated rebirth and renewal while the sun in the sky gained strength and people looked forward to warmer days. Hearth fires and candles were lit to mark the day. So how did it become St. Brigid’s Day?
In Irish Mythology, the goddess Brigid (or Brighid, Brigit or Brid meaning exalted one) is 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. She founded many monasteries, most notably the settlement at Kildare which she founded around 480.
St. Brigid died on 1 February 525 and this date is still celebrated as St. Brigid’s Day. She is buried in a tomb in the Abbey she founded in Kildare. Her remains were later moved to Downpatrick. There, 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, 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 levelled 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. Traditionally they hang above the entrance to the home for protection.
It is widely believed that the origins of the cross and it’s symbolism are pagan. Typically though, 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. Here’s one of my favorites from The Irish Store collection.
The design beautifully mimics the weave of the reeds which would have been traditionally used to make the crosses for the feast of St Brigid. Crafted in Ireland. Hallmarked at Dublin Castle.
2. Visiting Holy Wells
There are many holy wells in Ireland dedicated to St. Brigid, most notably in Kildare. 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!). This is believed to ward off 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!
Take care of yourselves and each other,
Slán go fóill!