[Image: a cros Bríde made from newspaper.]
Tentative Date: Northern Hemisphere – February 1st; Southern Hemisphere – August 1st.
Brief History: Also known as Lá Fhéile Bríde in Irish, which means Brighid’s Festival, Imbolc is a celebration of spring and a celebration of Brighid. The holiday was absorbed into Christian traditions as a companion to Candlemas. On this day, it is believed that Brighid (Saint or Goddess) walks the Earth and visits people.
Few ways to celebrate:
- Make a cros Bríde, or Brighid’s Cross
- Make a Brídeog, or an icon of Brighid
- Make a dealbh Bríde, or Brighid’s Bed
- Leave out a brat Bríde
- Clean the house
- Grand feast
As with all of the Gaelic Holidays, the roots of the tradition of Imbolc are tied into agricultural life. The day marked when the soil should be good enough to plow and when fisherman expected winter storms to subside. The closest tide to Imbolc is called Rabharta na Féile Bríde and is believed to be the greatest spring tide of the season. People gather seaweed and shellfish using this tide. Fisherman may gather a shellfish to put at all four corners of a house to help aid in fishing.
The house would then be looked over for its stock and food storage, to see how well the household had maintained itself and how much was left before it could be refilled after harvest.
The day has tied to it many omens and taboos . If the day was marked with perfect weather it should be taken as an omen for poor weather to come. Hedgehogs are watched and seeing one out of their winter burrow is a good weather sign. Work that involves spinning wheels was typically prohibited, including carting, milling, spinning, sewing machines, and even bicycles. Some places also banned ploughing and smithwork. Brighid is said to have an affection for birds, so should a lark be singing, it is a good sign for spring to come.
The food tied to this day is plentiful and rich. These include sowans, apple-cake, dumplings, colcannon, and fruit cakes. Butter is especially an important food item for the feast.
As stated above, Brighid is thought to walk around on Earth this day. The night before, leaving out an offering of bread and butter was a common way to welcome her, and leaving a sheaf of corn next to it was a way to welcome Brighid’s cow who also was traveling with her. These offerings may have been taken then by someone less fortunate, or returned in the morning to have for breakfast. Rushes or straw were put on the ground for Brighid to kneel and pray at, or to wipe her feet before entering the house.
The cros Bríde, or Brighid’s Cross, has various forms from various areas of Ireland. The cross is hung over the entrance door and is thought to protect the household from harm, thunderstorms, and fire. Evil spirits are thought to not be able to enter a house when a cross is hanging over the door. Usually, both the making and hanging of the crosses is attended with some ceremony: whether it be a prayer or an entire acted out ritual. A simple prayer that Kevin Danaher attributes to the southern half of Ireland is: “May the blessing of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit be on this cross and on the place where it hangs and on everyone who looks at it.”
In northern Ireland, Kanaher details a door ritual in which one participant–usually a girl–leaves the house and carries rushes in her hands. She knocks on the door three times and with each knock asks for the family to let in Brighid. After the third time, the family responds that they’ll gladly let her into the house. The girl then puts the rushes on the table and the family eats a festive dinner together. After the dinner, the parents recite a long prayer. The rushes are then plaited and made into large crosses. These crosses are sprinkled with holy water and hung on the roof or on the walls. A shorter version of this door ceremony is one person leaving the house, asking to come in, and the family welcoming them. Still, a theme of dinner and the crosses is a theme in Northern Ireland, as Danaher notes.
The left over rushes were turned into Brighid’s Bed, or a place for visiting saint/goddess to rest. This material could then be used the rest of the year to cure headaches or sore limbs by being tied on the affected area and left overnight. In the morning, the affected would then burn the material used to help cure them in hopes that the material had absorbed the sickness. These leftover materials are also fashioned as ribbons and worn for protection.
In Scotland, people make an oblong basket for Brighid’s Bed, called leaba Bríde. It is this bed that the icon of Brighid, called in Scotland dealbh Bríde, will rest. Both the leaba Bríde and dealbh Bríde are lavishly decorated with shells and flowers. Also a white wand is prepared to be laid beside the dealbh Bríde in the leaba Bríde. This white wand is called various things: slatag Bride, the little rod of Bride; slachdan Bride, the little wand of Bride; and barrag Bride, the birch of Bride. The wand’s wood is typically birch, broom, bramble, white willow, or other sacred woods. “Banned wood” was carefully avoided. Alexander Carmicheal further describes the wand: “It was straight to typify justice, and white to signify peace and purity–bloodshed was not to be needlessly caused” (pg 168.)
There is a ritual where a person of the house goes outside holding the dealbh Bríde to then be welcomed back in. The call-and-response is described by Alexander Carmicheal:
“When it is dressed and decorated with all the tenderness and loving care the women can lavish upon it, one woman goes to the door of the house, and standing on the step with her hands on the jambs, calls softly into the darkness, ‘Tha leaba Bride deiseal,’ Bride’s bed is ready. To this a ready woman behind replies, ‘Thigeadh Bride steach, is e beatha Bride,’ Let Bride come in, Bride is welcome. The woman at the door again addresses Bride, ‘A Bhride! Bhride thig a stench, tha do leaba deanta. Gleidh an teach dh’an Triana,’ Bride! Bride, come thou in, thy bed is made. Preserve the house for the Trinity. The women then place the ikon of Bride with great ceremony in the bed they have so carefully prepared for it. They place a small straight white wand (the bark being peeled off) beside the figure.” (pg 168.)
In alignment of the belief Brighid visits houses, people leave out sweaters, scarves, and other pieces of cloth. The item left out is then called the brat Bríde or bratóg Bríde, which roughly translates to Brighid’s rag or Brighid’s cloth. The brat Bríde is left out– sometimes tied to a door handle so Brighid touches it as she enters the home, other times left on a lower floor windowsill or laid on the doorstep. The cloth, transformed by Brighid’s blessing, is thought to cure ailments. In particular, it is thought to be curative to ailments of the head such as toothaches and headaches. The brat Bríde is also thought to be protective against evil magic and fairy abductions. Prior to being left out, the item may be measured. Then, once taken inside, remeasured to see if a difference in length could be observed. If the brat Bríde grew longer in the night, it is a good sign for a long and plentiful life. The increased length also could mean how much it had absorbed the healing powers of Brighid. (Useful to note that the lengthening of the fabric is most likely scientifically due to the fabric dampening with morning dew.)
In Scotland, traces for Brighid are looked for in the ashes of the fireplace. The night before, the ashes are gathered and put carefully on a cloth in a contained area. The next morning, signs for Brighid are looked for. Carmicheal writes:
“If they find the marks of the wand of Bride they rejoice, but if they find ‘long Bride,’ the footprint of Bride, their joy is very great, for this is a sign that Bride was present with them during the night, and is favourable to them, and that there is increase in family, in flock, and in field during the coming year. Should there be no marks on the ashes, and no traces of Bride’s presence, the family are dejected. It is to them a sign that she is offended, and will not hear their call. To propitiate her and gain her ear the family offer oblations and burn incense. The oblation generally is a cockerel, some say a pullet, buried alive near the junction of three streams, and the incense is burnt on the hearth when the family retire for the night (pg 168.)
A huge part of this day was in the communal tradition of going in large groups–house to house–with an icon of Brighid with them. Usually this icon–called the Brídeóg–was a doll refashioned, or a doll fashioned together with straw. Sometimes, though, a girl was selected and dressed to represent Brighid. The group who took the Brídeog to house to house would be given a few pennies or food to help their celebrations. In some versions of this tradition, the procession with a girl impersonating Brighid would ask the residents of the house to reaffirm their faith in the Christian God.
In Scotland, a bright shell is placed where the heart of the Brídeog would be. This is called, “reul-iuil Bride” or the guiding star of Bríghid. Carmicheal writes that this is to symbolize the star above infant Jesus which led Bríghid to him.
Danaher also briefly mentions in his book the crios Bríde, or Brighid’s Girdle. “This was a straw rope, some eight or ten feet long, spliced or woven into a loop and with a number –usually four–crosses of plaited straw attached to it” (page 34.) He mentions that sometimes the men carried this whereas the women carried the Brídeóg. The roaming party carrying the crios Bríde would ask people inside the house to walk through it to ensure protection and protection from illness, especially “pain in the bones” (page 34.) To ensure this, participants would go through three times. And in addition to people, cattle and animals may also be lead through the crios Bríde.
- Carmicheal, Alexander. “Carmina Gadelica Vol. 1: II. Aimsire: Seasons: 70 (notes). Genealogy of Bride. Sloinntireachd Bhride.” Carmina Gadelica. Vol. 1. N.p.: n.p., 1900. 164-73. Carmina Gadelica Vol. 1: II. Aimsire: Seasons: 70 (notes). Genealogy of Bride. Sloinntireachd Bhride. Web. 26 Jan. 2015. <www.sacred-texts.com/neu/celt/cg1/cg1074.htm>.
- Danaher, Kevin. “Saint Brighid’s Day.” The Year in Ireland. Cork: Mercier, 1972. 13-37. Print.
- Irish Culture and Customs. “Lesson #28 – Saint Brigid & Spring.” Language Irish Culture and Customs – World Cultures European Irish Culture and Customs, 4 Mar. 2011. Web. 26 Jan. 2015. <www.irishcultureandcustoms.com/3Focloir/Lessons6.html>