Here we are on the 1st February, Imbolc, if you’re using the calendar dates, Lá ‘le Bhríde, or Lá Fhéile Bhríde in Irish, St. Brigid’s Day for Catholics (and possibly other Christians?) Every year on 31st January, I get questions from people panicking about the minute details of how to do things properly in preparation for Imbolc/ Lá ‘le Bhríde so I’m going to answer them here. I’ve written before about my own practices on this day, so you can check them out here and here.
Why do we do a 4-armed cross, isn’t that Christian?
Well, yes, the 4-armed cross is Christian, so why would we be using it in a pagan Imbolc celebration? Fair questions. But the cross woven of rushes or straw comes from a story about the saint, where she converted a chieftain on his deathbed and wove a cross quickly from the rushes on the floor so he could die under the sign of the cross. And of course, in Ireland, any magic is a syncretic blend of Christian and pagan, we just don’t have the clear separation there is in other places. (I mean, Brigid herself is a great example of this!) There are other styles (see pic below from T. G. F. Paterson’s collection, shown in Harvet Home: The Last Sheaf, 1975), some of which use wood as well as more pliable materials.
Picture of crosses collected by T. G. F. Paterson, shown in Harvet Home: The Last Sheaf, 1975
So, across the country there are options to look at – I’ve also seen a five-armed cross, although aside from the weaving challenge, I’m not sure of the connection of 5 to Brigid. The 3 armed version I can see for the Smith, Healer and Poet… But this brings us to the next question:
What materials do I make my Brigid’s cross from?
There are many places in the world where either straw or rushes aren’t readily available. People worry that there is an inherent magical or spiritual property in using these materials. I don’t think so. I think my ancestors used straw or rushes because they were free, readily available and suitable for the purpose, especially at this time of year. Ireland around Imbolc/ Lá ‘le Bhríde/ St. Brigid’s Day is wet. Very wet. So if you live somewhere where you’re buried under 6 feet of snow right now, then maybe don’t go rooting for materials under all that.
Ideally, in my opinion, use natural materials that you can fold in two. Grasses are usually good, some herbs can work, leaves… If you can’t find natural materials, maybe because of the aforementioned 6 feet of snow or because you’re in an urban environment, then use something as close to natural as you can. Wool, paper, card… If it can fold in 2, you can make a Brigid’s cross out of it.
What do I do with last year’s cross?
Traditionally, people would leave last year’s cross either in place in the rafters, so you’d have years worth of crosses up in the thatch, or else they would burn it. Not everyone can burn things though, so burial would also work. If you can’t burn it and the ground is too hard at Imbolc/ Lá ‘le Bhríde/ St. Brigid’s Day for digging, composting is the next thing to try.
Prosperity magic – what does the “four corners” mean?
People are concerned that this might mean north, east, south, west or the literal four corners. I’ve always taken it as the four corners of the house, but I don’t see any problems with using NESW either. Whether it’s inside or outside I think will depend on your own circumstances. I mean, if you’re on the 5th floor of an apartment block, maybe don’t try outside. Just for safety reasons.
Also, take into account the smel. If you’re using something biodegradable that will end up smelly in the process, make sure they’re easily accessible! But for me, I’ve always imagined people taking them in on the morning of the 1st February (calendar date for Imbolc/ Lá ‘le Bhríde/ St. Brigid’s Day). And mixed in with a larger group to help encourage the magic spread through the family’s goods. So, if you’re using coins – put them into your wallet, purse or wherever you store said money. Or lodge a coin into your account. But let the blessed/magic coins touch your other money.
What can I use for my brat Bhríde?
Any bit of material really. Some people have beautiful embroidered clothes they use, others have bits of ribbon (ahem, me….) I’ve seen football scarves being used, teatowels, actual towels, blankets… If you have a piece of cloth that you can tie up outside. (I usually tie my ribbon to the inside handle of the door and leave it flapping in the breeze then. Ideally you’re leaving it tied to a bush or a growing thing, but not everyone has that option. I’ve known people to have it flapping from a car window because they were driving on the night in question.
How do I use my brat Bhríde?
Well, in some parts of the country, the brat Bhríde is used solely for headaches. In other parts of the country, it’s for anything. In certain parts of the country, it’s still considered an essential part of an athlete’s kit bag. People use them for any sprains or twists that might occur during training. Essentially, wrap the brat round the body part that’s hurting or injured and leave it there. Hence why we use a ribbon in this house, the brat is most often used for ankle problems!
So there you go: a few questions answered for those who celebrate the celestial Imbolc/ Lá ‘le Bhríde/ St. Brigid’s Day. If you’d like to know more, there are a few classes over at the Irish Pagan School to look at for Imbolc and for Brigid. And of course there’s my classes at the Brigid’s Forge school as well.