Traditions of Imbolc, Bhride and Brigid

Dear Saint Brigid of the Kine
Bless these little fields of mine,
The pastures and the shady trees,
Bless the butter and the cheese,
Bless the cows with coats of silk
And the brimming pails of milk,
Bless the hedgerows, and I pray
Bless the seed beneath the clay,
Bless the hay and bless the grass,
Bless the seasons as they pass,
And heaven's blessings will prevail,
Brigid - Mary of the Gael.

I wrote this article 5 years ago, and thought I would update it for now.

A collection of traditions …

As Mardi Gras, Carnivale and Pancake Day consume the last of our milk and eggs we enter The Season Of Brigid, the Celtic goddess, and later a Celtic Christian saint, Brigid, Bridget, Brighid, Brighde, Bride and even the Vedic Sanskrit "Brihati"

Sometimes known as the daughter of the Dagda of the Tuatha De`Dannan and Morrigan,
A woman of wisdom, seership, poetry, healing, and smithcraft.
Described as the patron of cloth dying, weaving and brewing.
A goddess of regeneration and abundance who brought forth the bounties of nature to provide for the people.

One story tells of Brigid being led by two oxen called Fea and Feimhean who gave their names to plains in Co. Carlow and Co. Tipperary. Cattle were very sacred and valuable currency in pre-Christian times, interestingly also the Age Of Taurus in the Great Year.

Originally, Brigid's festival was known as Imbolc, Imbolg or Oimelc, a cross quarter day that falls on February 4th or 5th. Many neo-pagans and Celtic Christians now celebrate on February 1st or 2nd around a sacred well of Brigid or the sharing the dew from a “Brigid’s Cloak” that has been left out overnight the night before.

Imbolc and Oimelc are both names that refer to the flow of milk heralding the return of the life forces of spring. Later, the Catholic Church replaced this festival with Candlemas Day on February 2, dedicated to the Virgin Mary and features candlelight procession.

The celebration of Brigid involves keeping the light alive,
Brigid the Light-Bringer.

Lambs are now being born, soft drizzling rain rain brings new grass, snowdrop flowers bloom, and some birds begin to build their nests. In Scotland, the Old Woman of winter, the Cailleach (pronounced kayak), is reborn as Bhride, or Bride. There was a celebration of eating “Bridies” a pastry like a Cornish Pasty made with lambs meat and other food still surviving storage through the winter. “Bridies tend to be available all year round now, especially in North Scotland.

With the coming of Christianity

Brigid became Ireland’s much-loved saint, possibly second to Patrick.

There's an oral story of transformation from Celtic Goddess to Christian Saint near Drumeague, Co Cavan, at a place called "The Mountain of the Three Gods." Here a stone head of Brigid was hidden in a tomb when the area was approached by Christian monks. Later it was recovered from this tomb by monks who mounted it on a local church and canonized it as "St. Bride of Knockbridge."

Whether we refer to Celtic or Christian legends Brigid is always connected to cattle and milk. When St. Brigid became abbess of Kildare her miracle was the ability to feed the poor with abundance. One miracle orally told is how Brigid's presence rapidly increased the milk and butter yield of the abbey cows. Some oral accounts tell of her cows producing a whole lake of milk three times a day and filling hundreds of baskets with butter.

When Saint Brigid died it is said that her skull was kept at Kildare. This was typical of the marriage between pre-Christian and Christian faith that was practiced at the time. Pre-Christian customs revered the head as sacred, a relic of the Age Of Aries that followed the Age Of Taurus that flowed into the Christian Age Of Pisces (the fish's head worn by bishops?).

Norman soldiers were supposed to have stolen Brigid's head from the abbey and sold in Portugal where it played a role in a Spring Cattle Ceremony.

The tradition of candles

Brigid is not only associated with milk and cattle and the feeding of the poor. She is equally associated with creativity and regeneration fueled by fire and sun, hence the flow into the tradition of candles and Candlemas.

There are oral tradition stories telling of Brigid belonging to the East, like the rising sun.

From within St. Brigid’s convent in Kildare in Leinster a perennial flame burned which became known as one of the three inextinguishable fires of the Irish monasteries. Stories have been told about this flame's miraculous properties, especially its ability to burn for 11 centuries without creating any ash. This fire was surrounded by a hedge where "no male may cross".

Today, the sisters of Solas Bhride, Kildare, now keep the perennial flame burning, and men are very welcome.

Let us not forget Brigid's legends of healing

Many Holy Wells have been named after her due to "miracles" of their healing properties. The most famous are her wells outside Kildare, refurbished by local nuns in 1984.

In some places of Ireland and Scotland people honour Brigid or Bride by leaving gifts in front of their homes such as cheese, butter, flowers, and even crystals. Someone is appointed to collect these gifts to give to the poor.

Leaving “A Brigid’s Cloak”, usually a red cloth, outside overnight is a lovely tradition. The collected dew is shared with the household the following morning to bless them, either by sharing the wiping of the dew or putting the cloth “cloak” in water, maybe collected from a sacred well, that every member of the household washes with. 

Let us not also not forget Candlemas

This is the Christian feast-days, Brigid's Day of February 2nd, the feast of Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary, forty days after childbirth.

The story is that this the day that Mary entered the Temple of Jerusalem and an old man, Simeon, called her baby the "Messiah of Israel, a light to lighten the Gentiles.". This symbolism converted the faith of light bringing regeneration and creativity into the divine light of Christ shining into the darkness of human sin.

In Britain, Candlemas was celebrated by each member of the congregation carrying a lighted candle to be blessed by the priest and then taken home to keep away demons and evils. Eventually this ceremony was banned due to a belief that it promoted the rising of harmful magical manifestations. However,the symbol of the lighted candles has always been a potent to many people, even today. Many Christians and even full church congregations still maintain this old ceremony.

In some English and Welsh counties fresh bloomed snowdrops have replaced candles for this ceremony. Snowdrops are locally called "Candlemas Bells" and "Purification flowers"

Interestingly, traces of this light festival is in the USA with the Groundhog Day custom on February 2. If the groundhog sees his shadow on this morning, it means there will be six more weeks of winter.

What about those ribbons?

Around Ireland and the UK we see these “cluties” tied on trees and bushes by holy wells?

Brigid is also said to weave cloth where the threads preserved healing properties. It is said that when ribbons are left by holy wells the disease will heal when the ribbons rot (so why do some people leave plastic ribbons????).

The tradition of the “Brigid’s Cloak” is related to that

Some of you may pray or celebrate next Tuesday February 5th as Shrove Tuesday or Pancake Day, followed by Ash Wednesday.

Again, what was that date?

People choose different days for this celebration for different reasons

Feb 1st as many churches choose this if they or the parish recognize Brigid with some kind of mass, celebration or feast the evening before

Feb 2nd is preferred by many churches as a Candlemas celebration rather than Brigid, again with some kind of worship, celebration or feast the evening before

night of the nearest Full Moon to Feb 1st, Feb 2nd or midpoint date, preferred by some Pagans and Wicca groups and there is a tradition that the whooper swans head back north through the light of this moon. It does happen!

over the nearest weekend to Feb 1st and 2nd, Saturday for ceili and celebration and Sunday for reflection and honouring.

midpoint between winter solstice and vernal (spring equinox) measured according to the ancient calculated and very accurate sidereal time, and this is my preferred option.

I like all Celtic Festivals of Imbolc, Samhain, Bealtaine and Lughnasa to commence three days including their midpoint sunrise day.  For 2008 Imbolc this is February, 2nd, 3rd, 4th.

Two Traditions I like best

One from Scotland, but seems to have pockets of it in North West Ireland and Mayo

Any woman who has never had children in a household, usually a young daughter, qualifies to make the home’s Bhride, Brideog, or Barra doll. If there is not “virgin” woman in the house, with “virgin” meaning woman who has never had a child and not a woman who has never sexual relationship, the nearest “virgin” woman is invited to make the doll.

The doll is made of straw, or it can be a “love knot” that has a loop as a head. This straw doll is then clothed with a white dress, gown, wrap or toga. To this is pinned either a quartz crystal or shiny pearlish colour shell.

Before the moon has risen and the sun has set the men of the house must be out of the house and stay out until the next day sun has risen and the moon is set. Local hotels, where the tradition is strong, become the celebration and lodgings for these men.

Meanwhile the women stay up all night with candles lit and meditating with the doll to attract the protection, wisdoms and blessings of Bhride

When the men return home the following morning they must first honour the doll, to receive the blessings of Bhride and then honor the women of the house one by one as if they are each of the goddess Bhride. Somehow this also extended to the men doing the chores of the house for the day so the women can rest too.

Somehow I think it is this tradition that has watered down and slid into today’s Valentine’s Day’s tradition.

The other tradition is more local to where I live in Co. Sligo.

The Whooper Swans that come here from Iceland and Greenland usually decide to go back home at this time. They arrive about Samhain time late October, early November. 

Not only are new lambs and calves born at this time but intimate celebrations and mating of Beltaine would have resulted in many babies being born around now. The reason Brides are called Brides after Bhride is that in ancient times people did not get married until they had successfully mated, conceived a child and now have a duty to marry to become committed parents. Their children were born at the time of Bhride so the mother became a Bride in honour of her.

Many of us have heard of the answer to a young child when her or she asks “where do babies come from”, which is “the stork”. That is derived from “the swan”.

Tradition tells that when the swans arrived here at Samhain they were bringing the spirit of Brigid to protect mothers until the time of birth and would then be the spiritual midwives at the time of birth, before leaving to return north, hence babies coming from “the swan”.

There is a tradition of the swan that varies from the Scottish Bhride doll. This time the men can stay at home. The “virgin” woman makes the Brigid cross, though these days any woman, and even a man if no woman is present in the house, which is left by the candle through the night.

After some ceremony that commences with burning the Brigid crosses of the year before and asking for Brigid’s blessing through the new crosses and for the family, everyone retires to bed except the eldest man of the house. 

He carefully puts out the hearth fire and levels the ash and then puts out the candle flames.

When the family return to the hearth the following morning if they see a footprint of a swan in the ash, then Brigid has passed by to bless them.

As you can imagine this ritual is enacted with the same spirit as Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy.

Brigid’s Cross & Brigid’s Cloak 

I have mentioned these before so far but I feel it is wise to conclude this article.

This is a time for new Brigid Crosses, Blessed Brigid’s Cloak and, or, Bhride Doll, full of new blessings, protection and healing for the year ahead. So, the first hearth ritual is the burning of last year’s and old crosses as their blessings and healing have been used by the home and its people.

Here’s wishing you all complete restoration, protection and the healing that is easily recognized by our personal zest for the new Spring ahead of us.


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