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St. Brighid's Cross

A Christian cross steeped in Irish folklore: the St. Brighid's Cross

(This relates to Saint Bridget of Ireland. For Saint Bridget of Sweden, see St. Birgitta's Cross.)

St. Brighid's Cross

St. Brighid's Cross

Like the Snowflake Cross, St. Brighid's Cross is a very delicate looking cross. Delicate, because it's usually made from brittle straw stalks. (See also Palm Cross and Communion Cross.) Sometimes this is called a Straw Cross, Imbolc Cross or St. Bride's Cross (variously spelt Brigid, Bridget, Bridgit or Brigit).

Who was St. Brighid? To be honest, we don't know.

There are several references to a female Pagan deity named Brig (Brigindo, Brigantia, or Bricta) in pre-Christian Scandinavia, the British Isles, and Northern France.

In imbolc (early spring), when badgers awoke from their pseudo-hibernation and ewes began to lactate, our Celtic predecessors felt it was wise to invoke the blessing of Brig to ensure a fertile start to the agricultural year. Fires would be lit in various purification ceremonies in the name of Brig.

In agricultural communities, the dependency on the seasons and weather for people's wealth, health and even survival, meant that Pagan customs and beliefs were deeply ingrained. Medieval Christian missionaries had their work cut out to convert them, and it is not surprising that missionaries would adopt and adapt existing customs and beliefs to infiltrate, to be accepted and ultimately respected by the farmers. For a nun to use the name 'Brighid' would give the message that she was to replace the goddess Brig.

Here then, is the story of a nun named Brighid. She may, or may not, have actually existed, but the story is nice anyway.

Brighid

County Kildare coat of arms
County Kildare's coat-of-arms, with a St. Brighid cross at the top

Fingal coat of arms
County Fingal's coat-of-arms, with a St. Brighid cross in the dexter

Brighid was born circa 451 A.D. to Brocca, a Christian woman who had been baptized by St. Patrick. Brighid's father, however, was not Christian. In fact he was the Pagan king of Leinster and named her after Brig, the Pagan goddess of fire and purification. She was brought up as a Druid but in 468 she converted to Christianity and became a nun.

After seeing to the construction of a convent in Kildare, Brighid became its Abbess, and effectively the Superioress General for all the convents in Ireland. Why this young girl was given so much authority is unknown, but perhaps it was in recognition of her fortitude in moving away from such a strong Pagan background to become a Christian nun.

In this appointment she achieved many things, not least the creation of schools covering religious education, art and metal working. These schools produced elaborately illuminated copies of the Gospels, one of which survived until a few hundred years ago and known as the 'Book of Kildare'.

One story about Brighid relates how a visiting bishop had a vision of the Virgin Mary in his sleep. The next day, he met Brighid for the first time and was amazed at her likeness to the image of Mary in his dream. From that day she was also known as Muire na nGael (Mary of the Gaels).

Of the many stories about her, legend and fact are as intertwined as the woven storks of St. Brighid's Cross itself. Nevertheless, she must have been a remarkable woman to be the basis of so much folklore. One example is the story how, after she died (1 February 525), the priest who had administered the final Viaticum (St. Ninnidh) vowed he would never again use his right hand. For fear of soiling the hand used to offer communion, he had it encased in a metal sheath.

Another story goes that nuns at the convent tended a fire in her memory, and that the fire burned continuously for one hundred years after her death.

In around 878, to protect her relics from invading Scandinavians, the remains of St. Brighid were moved from her tomb in Kildare Cathedral to St. Patrick's tomb in Downpatrick. As patroness of Ireland, her name lives on in the Irish town names of Kilbride, Brideswell, Tubberbride and Templebride.

St. Brighid's Day (Lá 'le Bhríd) is 1 February, to commemorate her death on that date, which coincides with the date of her Pagan namesake's festival on imbolc. Hence this cross is sometimes called the Imbolc Cross.

The Cross

St. Brighid's Cross
St. Brighid's Cross

It would be a mistake to overlook the similarity the St. Brighid's Cross has with the Pagan Solar Cross.

In Ireland, the superstitious believe that a St. Brighid's Cross woven from rushes or straw, pinned to the door frame or roof rafters, protects the house from fire. Flames and the sun feature repeatedly in Christian icons and crosses (see Glory Cross). For the St. Brighid Cross, instead of a circular sun, we can imagine sun rays.

But the St. Brighid Cross is not meant to represent rays of the sun, rather it is a symbol which has a profound message.

Brighid spent her life converting Pagans to Christianity, not by preaching from a soapbox, but by showing examples of God's love. She constantly went around feeding the poor and tending to the sick.

One day, she was called to comfort a dying Pagan chieftain and whilst visiting him, she picked up some rushes from the floor and wove a simple cross. With this, she told him the story of how Jesus was sacrificed on the cross to pay for man's sins. And that Christ rose again and lives today. After hearing the story, the man asked for forgiveness of his sins, converted to Christianity, and then died.

As mentioned at the top of this page, we don't really know who Brighid was. Whether the story of some mythical Pagan goddess has got mixed up with a nun from the Middle Ages, we'll never know. But we do have the St. Brighid's Cross which reminds us that simple words and simple actions can have a profound effect on people's lives.

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