St. Brigid’s Day - Celebrating Ireland’s Patron Saint

Although St. Patrick is undoubtedly better known outside the Emerald Isle, St. Brigid, along with Patrick and Columba, is one of Ireland’s beloved patron saints. As a leader of the early Celtic Christian church in Ireland, she is celebrated on her Feast Day, February 1st.


You will sometimes see the spelling of her name anglicized as St. Bridget and her Feast Day, also known as Imbolc, heralds the arrival of early Spring and the welcoming of longer and warmer days to come. Imbolc is one of the four major ancient pagan Irish “fire” festivals and according to Irish mythology, Brigid was a goddess of fire.


As you can see, St. Brigid stands at the doorway between the worlds of pagan rites, Druidism and that of Christianity. There is a charming custom that still continues in some Irish homes on St. Brigid’s day, the tradition of Brigid’s Bed. On January 31st, St. Brigid’s Eve, the unmarried young women of Irish villages create a doll made of corn which is called the Brideog (little Brigid or young Brigid). The decorate the doll with ribbons, shells, stones and other ornaments, then craft a bed for her. Afterwards, the young women gather as a group at one house and stay up all night with the Brideog.


Later in the evening, all the young men of the village come to visit the young women where they are gathered with the Brideog. They must ask permission to pass through the door into the home and they treat the young women and the Brideog with great respect. The next day the young women transport the doll to all the households in the village, where she is welcomed and honored.


The spirit of St. Brigid is believed to walk the land on the eve of Imbolc. In anticipation of her presence, each member of the all the village households will often leave an article of clothing or even a piece of cloth outside the door in the hope that Brigid will bless it.


Before retiring for the night, the head of the household approaches the burning hearth, smothers the smoldering fire and then makes sure to rake the ashes smooth. In the morning, she carefully examines the ashes, looking for a mark as a sign that Brigid has been among them. If the mark is there, the articles of clothing and pieces of cloth are retrieved from outside and are now believed to be imbued with powers of protection as well as healing.

 

 

Around 480 AD, Brigid founded a monastery at Kildare and is regarded as the original organizer of communal religious life for women in Ireland. Prior to this, women could be consecrated, but they lived in private homes. Brigid also founded an art school which included the working of metal as well as illumination of manuscripts.


She traveled extensively and as the story goes, she was visiting the bedside of a dying pagan chieftain. Sitting near his bed, she leaned over and picked up some rushes from the floor and began weaving a cross. The chieftain asked Brigid what she was doing, so she told him about Christ and explained the story of the cross. The dying man came to faith and asked to be baptized.


The cross of rushes, with its geometric spiraling arms, came to be known as St. Brigid’s cross and is customarily made on her Feast Day. The cross is then blessed with Holy Water and with these words: 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.


Once the cross is blessed, it is given a place of honor on the front door and is left there all year long, until the next St. Brigid’s Day when it is burned and replaced.


If you or your family are of Irish heritage (or even if you’re not!) these unusual crosses are fun to make, for children and adults alike. Here are simple instructions from the Irish Peatland Conservation Council: 


Brigid is the patron saint of many: “babies; blacksmiths; boatmen; brewers; cattle; chicken farmers; children whose parents are not married; children with abusive fathers; children born into abusive unions; Clan Douglas, dairymaids; dairy workers; fugitives; infants; Ireland; Leinster, mariners; midwives; milk maids; nuns; poets; poor; poultry farmers; poultry raisers; printing presses; sailors; scholars; travellers;  and watermen!”

 

 

Brigid died in AD 525 at her Kildare monastery. In her memory, her Sisters tended a fire at the convent, which burned continuously for centuries and was not extinguished until AD 1220. At some point, it was rekindled and burned for another 400 years!