by Cheryl Straffon
In rural areas, especially in the Celtic enclaves of Ireland and Scotland, a great number of customs grew up around this time, most associated with the Goddess whose festival this became, Bridget or Bride (pronounced Breed). When Christianity eventually took over, it found that such an important festival and its much-loved Goddess could not be ignored, so they changed the name to Candlemass, which still takes place in the Christian church on February 2nd, the festival of the purification of the virgin. The all-loving and nurturing Goddess, protectress of women and of childbirth, was turned into a festival in which the mother of Christ (who was still considered to be a virgin) had somehow to be cleansed of the process of giving birth, as if it were somehow unclean or shameful.
And yet the original Goddess, Bridget, could not so easily be eliminated or her role re-defined. She was such a loved and celebrated Goddess that she was simply turned into a saint, and she is still loved and worshipped above all others in the Catholic church. She is still loved, honoured and revered by the Irish people, and continued to be welcomed into people’s homes at this time right up until the early 20th century and beyond. There are some lovely descriptions of the customs associated with this festival in the Carmina Gadelica, a 6 volume collection of folklore from Scotland, and in the manuscript collections of the Department of Irish Folklore. Included in these volumes are accounts of how people used to welcome Bridget in on St.Bridget’s Eve (Jan 31st), the eve of the festival of Imbolc. The following extracts give a flavour of the immense richness of this festival:
“On the night of the first of February the family rosary was always offered by the old people to Saint Brigid to bring blessing on the crops for the year. A small sheaf of oats and potato used to be left on the doorstep until bed-time and stuck on a scolb (scollop) and put up behind a rafter on St. Brigid’s Eve. When the spring came, the oats would be rubbed between the hands and the seed would be put with the oats for sowing. The potato used to be cut and put with the rest of the ‘slits’. While this was being done, St.Brigid was being invoked to protect the crops from diseases”. [IFC]
“It is still said here that the milk has gone up into the cow’s horns from Christmas until after the feast of St.Brigid. This means that there is a scarcity of milk during this time. But the old people used to say – ‘It won’t be scarce very long now as Brid and her white cow will be coming round soon’. I heard that some of the older women of the Parish take a blessed candle to the cow’s stall on Brigid’s Eve and singe the long hair on the upper part of the cow’s udder so as to bring a blessing on her milk”. [IFC]
“At nightfall, the potatoes are put on to boil. A sheaf of scutched straw is brought in when the potatoes are boiled. The sheaf of straw is then placed on the floor underneath the pot and the potatoes are mashed. That sheaf of straw is called the Leaba Bhride and that is the straw with which the Bridget’s Crosses are subsequently made” (these crosses were used throughout the year whenever anything needed to be blessed or made fertile). [IFC]
“On Bride’s Eve the girls of the townland fashion a sheaf of corn into the likeness of a woman. They dress and deck the figure with shining shells, sparkling crystals, primroses, snowdrops, and any greenery they may obtain. A special bright shell or crystal is placed over the heart of the figure. This is called Real-iuil Bride, the guiding star of Bride … The girls call the figure ‘Bride’ or ‘Brideag’ and carry it on procession, singing the song of Bride bhoidheach oigh nam mile beus (Beauteous Bride, virgin of a thousand charms). The Banal Bride (Bride maiden band) are clad in white, and have their hair down, symbolising purity and youth. They visit every house, and every person is expected to give a gift to Bride and make obeisance to her. The gift may be a shell, a spar, a crystal, a flower, or a bit of greenery to decorate the person of Bride. Mothers however give bonnach Bride, a Bride bannock, cabag Bride, a Bride cheese, or rolag Bride, a Bride roll of butter”. [CG]
“The older women are also busy on the Eve of Bride, and great preparations are made to celebrate her Day, which is the first day of Spring. They make an oblong basket in the shape of a cradle, which they call leaba Bride – the bed of Bride. It is embellished with much care. Then they take a choice sheaf of corn and fashion it in the form of a woman. They deck this ikon with gay ribbons from the loom, sparkling shells from the sea, and bright stones from the hill. All the sunny sheltered valleys are searched for primroses, daisies and other flowers that open their eyes in the morning of the year. This lay figure is called dealbh Bride – the ikon of Bride.
When it is dressed and decorated with all the tenderness and loving care the women can lavish on 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 her replies Thigeadh Bride steach, is a beatha Bride – ‘Let Bride come in, Bride is welcome’. The woman at the door again addresses Bride A Bhride. Bhride thig a steach, 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 straight white wand (the bark being peeled off) beside the figure. The wand is called slatay Bride – the little rod of Bride, and is generally of birch, broom, bramble or white willow”. [CG]
These ritual welcomings of Bridget as harbinger of Spring, particularly by the women and young girls of the household, are a deep folk memory of the importance of the Goddess/saint in the lives of the people, and the great significance of this Imbolc festival in the continuing wheel of the year. The following Imbolc ritual by the women’s group incorporates many of these themes.
“At Imbolc some of us often go to a local holy well, as wells are associated with Bridget and this festival. There is one particular well that is our favourite: a lovely place, with a small stream issuing forth from the well, and sheep grazing in a nearby field. For many years an old hawthorn tree had hung picturesquely over the well, but on a recent visit there at Imbolc we were to get a surprise. The old tree, which we had called the Cailleach tree over the years, had finally cracked, perhaps in the winter gales that had raged a few weeks previously. It had fallen into a newly-growing hawthorn tree, and the whole lot had come crashing down into the entrance of the well, effectively blocking it off.
It was as if the trees were waiting for us to come at Imbolc to sort them out. We were most unprepared. We had plenty of candles, incense and wind chimes with which to decorate the well, but no secateurs or other tools to clear it away. So with bare hands and womanpower only, we set to work, clambering up and down the bank and pulling and pushing, until we had removed the dead tree (which was quite a weight and very awkward) and re-positioned the new hawthorn behind the dead stump of the old one. We said our thanks to the old Cailleach tree for the shelter and guardianship it had given to the well over the years, and told it that it had been a much-loved tree where people had tied their clouties. It seemed apt that it should finally fall this way at Imbolc, the festival where the Cailleach gives way to Bridget, for he had gone there to celebrate Bride and welcome her back. For us, the festival was manifested in the symbolism of the old Cailleach tree giving way to the young hawthorn.
Once it was cleared, and we could once again get to the well, we decorated it with our candles, our incense and our wind chimes. We closed the circle, and then meditated awhile on the season, while each woman in turn lit a candle that was tucked into one of the nooks of the grassy bank. We also floated some night lights in the well so that their light reflected back into the water. It looked absolutely magical!
Then one woman who had brought her flute began to play and we chanted softly:
‘Holy water, sacred flame,
Bridget we invoke your name,
Bless our hands, our heads, our hearts
Source of healing, song and art’.
Water was collected from the well, and each woman passed it round to the next, blessing her with the water and saying ‘The Goddess is within you’ until it returned to the beginning. Then each of us moved from the circle and made a private dedication at the well, placing some flowers we had brought around it. One of the women then went off to prepare to ‘carry’ Bridget, and the rest of us then began to chant her name. Suddenly out of the darkness Bridget arrived, bearing the flaming torch from the Winter Solstice, reminding us that all Goddesses are aspects of the same Goddess who moves around the Wheel of the Year. She was dressed all in white and veiled with a crown of candles on her head. She spoke of Her lineage and Her story, and she appeared to us to be very gentle and loving. She asked each of uswhat we wanted from Her, and then she gave us gifts – of water from Her well for blessing, shells from the sea shore She had collected with words of comfort and inspiration, a piece of ‘Brat Bride’ (cloth) for blessings and help, and a small pot of new crocuses for each of us to plant. There was much compassion and protection in Her presence, and we were all full of joy to see Her again.
Then She left, and the woman carrying Her returned, and we all chanted and danced, and to the music of the flute sang our Imbolc song:
‘Imbolc, Imbolc, the season of rebirth,
Feel the Goddess stirring in the waters of the earth,
Imbolc, Imbolc, the light will soon return
Warm the earth this winter’s night – see the candles burn’.
We then left the well and returned home – but our ceremony was not yet finished! Dressed all in white, we prepared Bride’s Bed, and then made a Bridgit figure out of rushes and straws, and decorated her with ribbons, shells and flowers. We took her to the back door, and called Bridget’s spirit into her, just as in the time-honoured tradition. Then we brought her back in, placed her in her bed, and surrounded her with Bridie dolls that we had made earlier. We read poems and sang songs to her and then sang her a lullaby in Gaelic, and lay her down to sleep. Finally, we finished with a sacred feast of white food, including sheep’s milk, creamy yoghurt, potatoes in a white creamy sauce, white salad, oatmeal cake, pavlova, coconut ice cream and organic white chocolate! The room was filled with gentle Bridget energy, and we all went to our beds, filled with Her gentle love and protection for another year.”
Extracted from the new book Daughters of the Earth by Cheryl Straffon (to be published by O Books in July 2007).