St. Brigid’s Day, Lá Fhéile Bríde, celebrates St. Brigid, on the first of February, one of the patron saints of Ireland, along with St Patrick and St Columcille. Her feast day marks the beginning of the pastoral year or the coming of spring.
Traditionally throughout Ireland, crosses were made from rushes, reeds or even straw on St. Brigid’s Eve, January 31st, to offer protection and blessing to the household. By placing a cross above your main door, it was said that St. Brigid would not allow any harm or evil spirit to pass the protective charm of her cross. The cross also provided protection to the household from fire and other dangers as well as blessing the thrashing as well as the cattle.
Who was St. Brigid?
St. Brigid was born in the fifth century in Faughart, Co. Louth, just about 10mins from the Northern Irish border. It is believed she was born on February 1st and that she died also on that date. Different versions of her life exist but the consistent stories tell us that one of her parents was baptised a Christian by St. Patrick himself. She was known for her charitable and kind nature. She became a nun and aspired to build a church. When she was denied land for her church but later granted only the amount of land that her cloak covered, a miracle is said to have occurred, and the cloak grew and grew until it reached a sufficient size for a church to be built on.
St. Brigid’s Day also celebrates another Brigid or Brig as she was known. She was a pagan Celtic goddess of Ireland in pre-Christian times and her feast day, February 1st marked Imbolc, the festival of spring. Marking saint days in line with pagan festivals was seen as a way of easing the transition for folk to Christianity. St. Brigid is known as the patron saint of livestock, babies and nuns as well as others.
Making a St. Brigid’s Cross
It is said St. Brigid made a cross from rushes or reeds to explain Christianity, much like St. Patrick used the shamrock to explain the Holy Trinity. It is said that the rushes you gather for your cross must be pulled and not cut on St. Bridget’s Eve. No easy task, I confess mine were cut! Supposedly pulling them was more natural whereas the cut could expose them to evil spirits.
For making a traditional four legged cross, the knack is in the turning of the rushes from left to right at a right angle or 90 degrees.
Begin with the first reed and then fold the second in half and wrap it around the centre of the first reed. Then holding the two reeds in the centre, rotate clockwise 45 degrees. Fold another reed in half and again wrap it around the centre of the first reed. Rotate clockwise again and repeat until you can see your cross formed. Tie off the ends with some straw or string.
Irish Peatland Conservation Council have a handy video on YouTube to show you how it’s done - watch it here.
Traditionally they are left in position over the door or on a wall until replaced the following year.
There are many different types of St. Brigid’s Crosses; four legged, three legged, chalice style, even Bridie straw dolls were made in certain regions of Ireland.
If you are attempting to make a cross for the first time I advise starting with pipe cleaners. They are easier to turn as the wire in the pipe cleaner allows it to stay in position as you rotate and add the next one.
Next year I will attempt one of the more elaborate St. Brigid’s Day Crosses and explore the other various crosses and items associated with St. Brigid in our collections in the Ulster Folk Museum and the Ulster Museum.