The Practical Side of Tradition

Some years ago I wrote a brief post on  Imbolg or Lá Fhéile Bríde to explain my observance of  the  holiday, because I was tired of being mistaken for a neopagan.   What I didn’t share then was how traditional practices helped me organize my life the same way they have for generations.

In the same way that folktales usually offer up some small bit of operant information, despite their moralizing, folk customs pertaining to festivals and holidays usually served some community building function. These customs and rituals also served the equally important role of keeping the agricultural and household tasks on schedule.

The great part about living now, is that we can look through the folklore for the useful stuff and go on with our bad selves without being bogged down by any of the dogma. I generally think people are looking too hard for it, anyway. Peasants didn’t have much time for philosophy and neither do I.  I will leave the philosophical dissection to people with more time on their hands.  I have work to do.

Besides, despite what some creative nonfiction writers out there would have you think, we really don’t know much at all about  the ancient observance of this holiday.

Imbolg was believed to be celebrated as agricultural holiday. Some passage mounds such as the Mound of Hostages and the Cairns of Slieve na Caillaigh are aligned with the sunrise on this morning.  Most of them are aligned with one quarter day or another. These structures predate Celtic settlement of Ireland.

Folk tradition in Ireland holds that February 1st was the first day of “spring”  for the ancient Gaels, but insular Celts like the Gauls did not divide their year into four seasons.  There was the cold half of the year (gaimred) associated with the feminine and the warm half of the year (samrad) associated with the masculine.

Most scholars  believe  that the celebration of these agricultural holidays like the passage mounds are remnants of an indigenous cultural practice.[1]  So the Gaels likely assimilated some practices from an earlier culture and the Christians assimilated some from the Gaels.  It is the way of things.

What we do know is that on Beltaine, prechristian Gaelic the women left the settlement to go tend the herds in the summer pastures,and the men stayed put to work the fields and scuffle.  That’s why Beltaine was often when temporary marriages ended.

That’s about all we know, we know a great deal about customs were practiced by Christians who celebrated the day as Lá Fhéile Bríde.  There is no doubt that her popularity soared during the Christian era.  Truly, my issues with organized religion aside, I have no grievances with St. Bríde.  Any gal who can instantly turn water into ale and then heal the headache of a hangover is solid in my book.

Oíche Fhéile Bríde agus Lá Lúnasa was an important feast day for the Gaels.  Bríde herself promised that the weather would improve from this day forward saying:

Gach re lágo maith
Ó’m Iá-sa amach
Agus leath mo lacjeinigh

‘Every second day fine
from my day onwards
and half of my own day’.[2]

This meant farmers could start preparing their fields to be sown. Villagers could expect that soon the rough seas of winter would begin to abate and a great tide would wash in loads of seaweed to be gathered, cut and spread on their cropland.

In other areas, this wasn’t a certainty and the coming of spring was divined by the portents of the day. A rhyme from the North of Scotland from the 1800’s went:

If Candlemas day be clear and fair,
 half o’ winter is t’ gang and mair;
If Candlemas day be dark and foul,
The half o’ the winter is deen at Yule.”

Some farmers  might watch to see if the hedgehog came out of hibernation on this day while others watched to see if the hibernating adders left their dens.

It was considered bad luck to harm an adder on this day and as they were kind of cold still at this point they weren’t moving very quickly.  They didn’t pose much of a threat. There were several little rhymes written to remind people of this.

La Feill na Bride,
Thig nighean Imhir as a chnoc,
Cha bhean mise do nighean
’S cha dean i mo lochd.’

The Feast Day of  Bride,
The daughter of Ivor shall come from the knoll,
I will not touch the daughter of Ivor,
Nor shall she harm me.

For both the farmer and the homemaker, it was a time for taking stock of what you had on hand to be sure you had enough to last you until the land provided you with fresh food to harvest.  It was a time for cleaning the home and getting it ready for Bride’s visit as well as making báirín breac and butter as the sheep who were giving birth began producing milk again.

Just as a side note,  I know this this sounds all lovely as if they were living in tune with nature and all of that. In truth, part of that is just  good old-fashioned animal husbandry common in pastoral communities.  One of the tasks assigned to women in charge of the flocks at Lughnasadh was to wean lambs from their ewes so they would breed again resulting in a new flock of lambs  and a fresh milk supply in February. Imbolg  marked the point  when the ewes milk came in before giving birth.

Serving some sort of company loaf seems to closely mirror the Scottish custom of serving a bannock Marion McNeill called Highland Quarter Cake on the festivals. [3]

In some areas, the sprig of mistletoe, or holly, that had been hung at Yuletide to protect the house from fire and lightning, came down and  cros Bríde were made to hang in their stead.  Despite what you have heard, these crosses took many forms and did not all resemble swastikas.  The easiest to make is the three-arm version popular in Co. Donegal, pictured here.

Sometimes a household would use the materials leftover from making the crosses to make a small bed for the saint in the home.  Sometimes the family would use the leftover straw or rushes to light rushlights in honor of the saint. Customs varied greatly by region.

There are many Irish healing superstitions associated with the holiday which may reach back to the days when one of the sisters’ Brighid were was a goddess who presided over medicine and healers. While we can’t be quite sure of the origin of these customs, they do have the practical effect of insuring the healing supplies are ready for the year.

The Ribín Bríde was a piece of silk ribbon or a strip of linen that was left outdoors on St. Bridget’s Eve- usually on the windowsill or in a doorway.  The saint was said to have blessed the ribbon as she passed by in her travels and it was used to tie around the head and apply pressure as a headache cure subsequently.

The Brat Bríde (Bridget’s Mantle) was a linen garment left out and used by women to ensure safe childbirth. If any of you doulas and midwives out there have used a Rebozo, you know what I am talking about

The Crios Bríde (St. Bridget’s Belt) was a large ring of straw rope that people would walk through on St. Bridget’s Day to invoke the Saint’s protection from illness.  This custom seemed to be most common in Co. Galway.

Dividing the year by the cross quarters was not unique to Gaelic cultures.  Into late 18th century, the year English divided their years into quarters named for these holidays… Candlemas quarter…midsummer quarter…michaelmas quarter and Christmas quarter.[4]

Candlemas or as the Welsh call it Gŵyl Fair y Canhwyllau  (Mary’s Festival of the Candles) is also an ancient holiday.  Traditionally celebrated on February 2nd,   it is mentioned often as a benchmark date in the Anglo Saxon Chronicles.  The first entry is in 1014 CE.[5]

It was also celebrated in Norway, Sweden and North of Germany. In Germany, it was said that “If the sun shines on Candlemas day, the flax will prosper.” There is some story about Jesus and Mary associated with the feast, the practical aspect of this holiday is that this was the day people would bring their candles to the church to be blessed by the priest.  Which you know, meant they had to be made in time.

It’s also worth noting that Candlemas did not usurp Lá Fhéile Bríde. In Ireland and Scotland, they celebrated both festivals and there is some convoluted story as to Bríde’s association with Mary to account for the proximity of the festivals.

Up until the reign of the Stuarts, Candlemas, rather than Twelfth Night, was the day that all the holiday greenery was to be removed from the home.  In some areas, the holly and ivy were burned in Candlemas Eve fires.  Sound familiar?

Ceremonies for Candlemasse Eve
Down with the Rosemary and Bayes,
Down with the Misleto;
In stead of Holly, now up-raise
The greener Box (for show.)
The Holly hitherto did sway;
Let Box now domineere;
Untill the dancing Easter-day…

1648 by Robert Herrick

After years of adhering to the custom, I have concluded it seems at least possible that this practice was based on some common sense. The greenery is a fire hazard by this point of the year.  I am cleaning up old dry needles from all sorts of strange places today.  They work really well in tinder boxes.

So, while everyone else is waxing poetic about deeper esoteric underpinnings of the festivals, my actions are informed by traditional folk practicality.

  • I will take stock of my situation including making an inventory of the gardening closet, freezer, pantry and apothecary.
  • I will then restocking things that I won’t have time for making once gardening starts like candles, soap and fire starters.
  • I am doing a good round of deep cleaning that I won’t have time once it is nice out.   Tasks like making sure the jars are cleaned out and ready for the next go around.
  • I am anticipating the return of good weather and beginning to get my seeds around to start transplants, and making seed strips.  I usually have stuff in the ground in early March and am eating fresh lettuce before most people have their garden planted.
[1]  Kevin Danaher, "Irish Folk Tradition and the Celtic Calendar." In The Celtic Consciousness, ed. Robert O'Driscoll, (New York: George Braziller Inc., 1983), 223.

[2] O’Sullivan, John C. “St Brigid’s Crosses.” Folk Life 11, no. 1 (January 1973): 60–81..

[3] McNeill, Florence Marian. The Scots Kitchen: Its Traditions and Lore, with Old-Time Recipes. 1974 Reprint. Glasgow, Scotland: Blackie & Son, 1929.

[4] Glasse, Hannah. The Art of Cookery, Made Plain and Easy: Which Far Exceeds Any Thing of the Kind Yet Published ... London, England: W. Strahan, J. and F. Rivington, J. Hinton, 1774.

[5] Ingram, James, trans. The Anglo Saxon Chronicle. London, England: J.M. Dent, 1823.

[6] Herrick, Robert. Works of Robert Herrick. vol II. Alfred Pollard, ed. London, Lawrence & Bullen, 1891. 129.