This weekend, we celebrate Brigid/Imbolc. It’s one of my favorite religious holidays because it is, by its very nature, interfaith, cross-cultural, and great for kids.
Brigid (or Brigit or Brighid), the goddess, comes to us from ancient Celtic tradition. She has long been associated with an extensive list of symbols and responsibilities. She is the goddess of poets, fire, the hearth, the forge, the well, the season of spring, the birthing of lambs and calves, lactation, and healing. She is celebrated on Feb. 1, the traditional start date of the spring season on the pagan wheel of the year — halfway between the winter solstice (≈Dec. 21) and the spring equinox (≈March 21). Brigid’s day is also known as Imbolc (i-MOLK), a word that can be roughly translated as “in the belly” or “ewe’s milk.” Legend has it that an ancient pagan temple, located near an oak tree in Kil Dara, Ireland, was built to honor Brigid. A sacred site for the Druids, several young women lived there, maintaining the temple and guarding the ritual fire.
Brigit, the saint, comes to us from the Catholic tradition. Her feast day is, coincidentally, Feb. 1. According to her legend, St. Brigit was an early Irish nun, who helped bring Christianity to Ireland (along with St. Patrick). Known for her piety, she built a small church in Kildare, Ireland, which also served as a monastery for both men and women. The cathedral there houses an eternal flame dedicated to Jesus Christ. Interestingly, some of the miracles attributed to St. Brigit often involve the symbols of the goddess. For example, one legend has it that a leper came to Brigit looking for a cow. Instead, she healed him with sacred water from her well.
These striking coincidences have prompted many to claim that the Catholic Church syncretized (or co-opted, depending on your perspective) the goddess Brigid in establishing the life of Saint Brigit. We’ll probably never know with certainty what happened over the centuries so long ago. What we do know is that we have inherited Brigid folklore from two very rich traditions, and that’s not always a bad thing. Since it’s a great holiday for kids of all ages, I thought I’d share some of my favorite kid-friendly activities.
Make Brigid Crafts
Two crafts readily come to mind when celebrating Brigid. The first is a Brigid cross (see image above). This cross appears to be a combination of the ancient sun cross and the more modern Christian cross. The sun cross is a widely-found prehistoric symbol associated with the Neolithic (7,000 BCE) and Bronze (1700 BCE) ages. Two lines of equal length intersect at the midpoint, and the cross is surrounded by a circle. (I’m assuming you’re already familiar with the Christian cross.) Brigid crosses can be made from long grasses or straw (as they were in the past), but you can also make them from strips of old newspapers or raffia. Below, you will find links to just two of the many web sites offering great instructions and pictures for making Brigid crosses of your own.
We’ve done both these crafts with our upper elementary and middle-school classes on several occasions over the years. They are quick, easy, and turn out great. In the newsprint version, we let the kids fringe the ends with scissors to make the crosses look more like traditional crosses made from items in nature.
If crosses aren’t your thing, you could also make a Brigid doll. Traditionally, these dolls were made from the last sheaves of grain (usually wheat or barley) harvested in the fall. The dolls could be carried in procession through the village, or they could simply be placed on a Brigid altar. Nowadays, corn husks dolls are popular, but you can also make dolls from yarn or other greenery. These two web sites provide good instructions for a Brigid corn doll.
Other craft ideas might include making your own candles or decorating small bottles filled with water.
Look for Signs of Spring
In our culture, we think of March 21st as the start of spring, but in this tradition, Imbolc marks the start of spring. That means now is the time to start noticing the longer days and the change of seasons.
For years, I was a professor at Warren Wilson College just outside of Asheville, NC. The college property contains a working farm maintained by the students. The farm is home to beef cattle, pigs, and sheep, and their babies really are born at this time of the year. It’s always fun to visit a farm with your kids, and this is an especially good time for it. It’s not too hot; in fact, in some places, it’s still downright frigid. But you are likely to see some very young animals nursing from their mothers as they learn to locomote more efficiently.
Here in Western North Carolina, the first flowers (usually crocuses, but also daffodils) also start to blossom in February. It’s always amazing to see those first blooms, standing colorful and tall in small mounds of ice and snow.
Tie Clooties (or Clouties or Cloughties)
The word “clootie” means a strip of cloth. In Ireland and Scotland, clooties are tied to the branches of trees that grow near holy wells. In ancient times, those in need of healing would visit the well, offer a prayer to the local goddess, and then tie an old piece of cloth to the tree. As the cloth disintegrated over time, so would the ailment. Other traditions involve walking around the sacred well, making an offering to the spirits of that place, or dipping the cloth into the holy water and washing oneself with it. Nowadays, people often tie brightly colored pieces of cloth to the tree rather than old rags, and they might pray to a saint rather than a goddess.
These variations in practice remind us that it’s hard to go wrong if you approach the ritual from a place of respect and reverence. Find a shrub or small tree in your yard that has easily accessible branches, or buy a small shrub/tree that you can plant afterwards. Cut small strips of cloth. The strips can be any length, but something like 2” x 8” will make it easy to tie onto a branch. As you tie your clootie to the branch, take a moment to offer up a healing prayer for yourself or someone else. Think about the end of winter and the onset of spring. What will you miss about winter? What will you enjoy about spring? Or just inhale deeply and see if you can smell a whiff of spring in the air.
Find a Pagan/Wiccan/Goddess Ritual (or Create One of Your Own)
Brigid is an important holiday for modern Pagans/Wiccans. If there is a group that regularly gathers for earth-based rituals, then they will almost surely meet for Brigid/Imbolc. One of our local groups here in Asheville, Mother Grove Goddess Temple, will offer a public ceremony in the fellowship space at one of the Episcopal churches. The altar will be covered with glowing candles, figures of Brigid, and other symbols of the goddess. We will sing songs, tie clouties, pour milk over a statue of Brigid, and contemplate how Brigid and all she stands for might bring meaning to our lives today.
If there isn’t a celebration being held in your local community, then just do something small on your own. There is no reason why a home ritual has to be elaborate or last a long time. Two of Brigid’s symbols are fire and water. Place a bowl of water on a table, light some candles around it, and sit quietly with your kids for a few minutes. Talk about how both fire (sun) and water (rain) are important for new growth. If you’re planning a garden this year, give everyone a chance to say what they would like to plant. Take this moment to plan a family outing during your kids’ upcoming spring break. Or, just breathe deeply and watch the flickering flames for a few minutes together. Happy Spring!
Want more ideas? Circle Round is still one of the best sources on celebrating Pagan/Wiccan traditions with your kids. Here’s the reference. Starhawk, Baker, D., and Hill, A. Circle Round: Raising Children in Goddess Traditions. New York: Bantam Books. 1998. Print.