Spring comes early to Ireland. As I walked through the parklands in mid-January daffodils had pushed through the soil, their bright blooms still hidden but preparing for debut.
The Gaelic festival of Imbolc (i-MOLG) marks the beginning of spring. Set half way between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, celebrations are usually held February 1.
Speak Irish The word for spring in Irish is earrach (arrock)
Originally a Celtic festival, it became Christianized as the festival of St. Brigid, a patron saint of Ireland who is thought to be based on the Brigid the Celtic goddess.
Though Bidgid has quite a few miracles attributed to her, not the least of which was the expansion of her cloak to cover the land to build her convent, her name is most associated with the St. Brigid’s Cross.
The Story of St. Brigid’s Cross
There was an old pagan Chieftain who lay delirious on his deathbed in Kildare (some tales say this was her father) and his servants summoned Brigid to his beside in the hope that the saintly woman might calm his restless spirit.
Brigid is said to have sat by his bed, consoling and soothing him and it is here that she picked up rushes from the floor and began weaving them into the distinctive cross pattern.
Whilst she weaved, she explained the meaning of the cross to the sick Chieftain and it is thought her calming words brought peace to his soul. He was so captivated by her words that the old Chieftain requested he be baptized as a Christian just before his passing.
Since that day, and for the centuries that followed, it has been customary on the eve of her Feast Day for the Irish people to weave a St. Brigid’s Cross of rushes and place it inside the house over the door.
Traditions of St. Brigid’s Cross
Woven on the eve of the festival, January 31, St. Brigid’s crosses are traditionally hung by the door and in the rafters to protect a home from fire and evil.
Some traditions state that a new cross is to be woven each year, with the old one burned to keep fire from the house, but many homes will have several crosses preserved in the ceiling or roof.
How to Weave a St. Brigid’s Cross
While fresh rushes, pulled, not cut, are used to create a traditional St. Brigid’s Cross, plastic straws can be used.
I’ve taken these directions from Scoil Bhride (St. Brigid’s School) in Portlaois, Ireland.
You Will Need
- 16 Reeds (or Straws)
- 4 small rubber bands
What to Do
- Hold one of the reeds vertically. Fold a second reed in half as in the diagram.
- Place the first vertical reed in the centre of the folded second reed.
- Hold the centre overlap tightly between thumb and forefinger.
- Turn the two rushes held together 90 degrees anti-clockwise so that the open ends of the second reed are pointing vertically upwards.
- Fold a third reed in half and over both parts of the second reed to lie horizontally from left to right against the first straw. Hold tight.
- Holding the centre tightly, turn the three reeds 90 degrees anti-clockwise so that the open ends of the third reed are pointing upwards.
- Fold a new reed in half over and across all the rushes pointing upwards.
- Repeat the process of rotating all the rushes 90 degrees anti-clockwise, adding a new folded reed each time until all rushes have been used up to make the cross.
- Secure the arms of the cross with elastic bands. Trim the ends to make them all the same length. The St Bridget’s Cross is now ready to hang.
References if you wish to know more
Learn the story of St. Brigid
Celtic Festivals– and introduction
Old Irish Customs that Survive in Modern Ireland podcast with author Felicity Hayes-McCoy (podcast)