Gaelic and Celtic Customs
from the Hebrides and Beyond
Fada's Farsaing (Far and Wide) is a series of articles by by Liam O Caiside in English but with Gaelic words and phrases interwoven in the text. The articles describe a wide range of Gaelic and Celtic customs. These pages were originally published in the "Scottish Radiance" e-magazine and have been reproduced here with the kind permission of the Scottish Radiance editor, Sharma Krauskopf.
Candlemas - Là Fhèill Brìghde
The beginning of February marks the first of the Quarter Days, Candlemas, known in Gaelic as Là Fhèill Brìghde nan coinnlean, "the feast day of Brìghde of the candles." The Brìghde in question is St. Bridget of Kildare, who inherited the holiday from a Celtic goddess, Brigid, or Brigantia. (The illustration on the right (from Wikimedia) is of St Brigid's Cross. It was traditionally believed that a Brigid's Cross protects the house from fire and evil. Though a Christian symbol, it possibly derives from the pagan sunwheel. It is usually made from rushes or, less often, straw. It comprises a woven square in the centre and four radials tied at the ends).
A variety of traditions were associated with Bridget's day, but in most places Bridget herself was invited to come into the house and bless the household.
"Oh Brìde, Brìdeag, come with the wand to this wintry land; and breathe with the breath of Spring so bland, Brìde, Brìde, little Brìde."
This traditional rhyme, a translation from Scottish Gaelic, is found in Sheila Livingstone's Scottish Customs (Birlinn Ltd., Edinburgh, 1996). "Brìde" is a more modern form of the Gaelic name Brìghde, pronounced something close to "Bree-jah."
Similar rhymes are found in Ireland and the Isle of Man. We'll discuss a few St. Bridget¹s Day customs and traditions, but first we need to ask just what is a "Quarter Day" and who was (or is) Brìde?
The Quarter Days, as they are called in Scotland, was when rents and other payments fell due and are the basis of the ancient agricultural calendar used by the Celts in Britain and Ireland. Some scholars believe the four-fold division of the year may be pre-Celtic in origin.
The four Quarter Days, in Scottish Gaelic, are Samhainn (Nov. 1), Là Fhèill Brìghde (Feb. 1), Bealtainn (May 1) and Là Lùnasdal (Aug. 1). Their English equivalents are All Hallows, Candlemas, May Day, and Lammas.
An early Gaelic name for the February festival is Imbolc or Oímealg, This name is well known to students of Celtic mythology, but the festival itself is universally known in the Gaelic world today as Là Fhèill Brìghde.
Là Fhèill Brìghde is the beginning of spring, the time when milk began to flow in the udders of ewes that would soon give birth to lambs. It was time to prepare for the farming and fishing that would resume after Bealtainn.
Now who was Brìde? Let¹s start with St. Bridget, or Naomh Brìde, before turning to the identity of the more ancient goddess, Brigantia.
According to medieval sources, Brìde was born in Ireland about 455 A.D., near what is now the town of Newry, the daughter of a Druid named Dubhtach. She became a Christian and was ordained by Moel, bishop of Ardagh. She then founded several religious communities, including the settlement at Kildare (Cill Dara, which means the Church of the Oak). She died in 525. A.D.
The popularity of her cult spread far and wide, reaching wherever the Gaels settled. Celtic Scholar Anne Ross, author of Pagan Celtic Britain (reissued by Academy Chicago Publishers, Chicago, 1996), noted that the cult of Bridget of Kildare was extremely popular in Catholic areas of the Hebrides.
St. Bridget came to be revered as highly as the Virgin Mary, and was known in Irish as Muire na nGael, or "Mary of the Gaels." In Scottish Gaelic tradition she is often called the banaltrum or nursemaid of Christ. This grew from a belief that she was present at the birth of Jesus, and assisted Mary as midwife.
The saint was closely associated with cattle and lands. She was described as having been raised on the milk of a white, red-eared cow, which would seem to be an Otherworld beast, and she was concerned with cattle and flocks. In one tale she milked a cow until its overflowing milk formed a lake, Loch an Ais.
Not surprisingly, many of the attributes of St. Bridget can be traced directly to the goddess Brigid, indicating that the cult of the saint absorbed the traditions of the followers of the goddess at a very early date. This transferal was not uncommon. In The Festival of Lúnasa, Máire Mac Néill argues that St. Patrick in legend received many of the attributes of Lugh, one of the chief Irish gods.
Both saint and goddess are associated with fertility -- St. Bridget most notably as the nursemaid or foster-mother of Christ -- and creative activity. Brigid is the patroness of smiths and poets. She is also a healer, and a brewer.
The Pagan goddess came in triplicate -- the three Brigids, or three aspects of Brìghid, adored by poets, smiths and healers. In Irish literature the goddess is the daughter of the Dagda, whose name means the "good god."
The Welsh-Norman writer Giraldus Cambrensis in the 12th century reported that a perpetual fire tended by nine virgins had been kept burning in Kildare since the saint's time, probably a survival of druidic custom relating to Brigid.
Brigid has been equated with an ancient goddess well known in early Celtic Britain, Brigantia. Brigantia was the patron goddess of the Brigantes, a confederation of tribes that occupied what is now northern England. She was a river-goddess, associated with the River Braint in Anglesey, Wales, and the River Brent in Middlesex, England. Brigantia was sometimes associated with the Roman goddesses Victoria and Minerva. Her name means "High One."
In ancient times, the triple goddess Brìgid was propitiated by the sacrifice of a fowl buried alive at the meeting of three waters, according to the French Celticist Marie-Louise Sjoestedt, author of Gods and Heroes of the Celts (available in an English edition from Turtle Island Foundation, Berkeley, 1982).
Sjoestedt eloquently described the staying power of the mother-goddess Brigid through the ages: "Religions succeed one another, gods die and are forgotten, but the peasant of the Highlands still, after thousands of years, continues to honor with a humble ritual those powers more ancient than the gods."
Sheila Livingstone reports an interesting tradition relating to the goddess Brigid. In Scottish Customs, Livingstone notes that it was believed that Brgid spent the winter imprisoned within Ben Nevis by the Cailleach, or Hag. She was rescued by Angus, or Oengus mac Óc, the young god, who was her brother. Brigid is able to defeat the Hag, who had held her prisoner since Samhainn, ending the rule of winter and bringing on the beginning of spring. (The graphic here from Wikimedia is of the entrance to "St Brigid's Well" in County Clare, Ireland).
It is important to secure the saint's blessing on her day. In Ireland the woman of the house, a young woman, or even a man representing Brìde would come to the door and ask to be let in.
In County Tyrone, a young girl carrying rushes in her hands would knock on the door three times and say, "Téighidh sibh ar mhur nglúna, déanaidh sibh umhlaíocht, agus ligigidh Bríd Bheannachtach isteach." ("Go down on your knees, do homage, and let Blessed Bridget inside.")
In some areas a "Brídeóg," a straw figure representing Brìde, would be carried around by young people who would sing and dance and ask for money. In Scotland the "Brìdeag" was a straw figure that was used by young women in a marriage diviniation ceremony.
Curiously, tradition links this ancient Celtic holiday with an American holiday of sorts -- Groundhog Day.
Là Fhèill Brìghde was considered an auspicious day for forecasting the coming seasons weather. A Manx saying goes, "Choud as hig y scell greinney stiagh Laa'l Breeshey, hig y sniaghtey my jig laa Boaldyn." ("As long as the sunshine appears on St. Bridget's Day, the snow will come before May Day.") It has come to us in modern times in Scotland as
"If Candlemas Day be bright and fair
Half the winter is to come and mair (more)
If Candlemas Day be dark and foul
Half the winter was over at Yowl (Christmas)
In various places, it was believed that an animal such as a snake or hedgehog would come out on St. Bridget's Day, judges the quality of the weather, and returns to his burrow if the weather will remain bad. This belief was carried to North America by colonial settlers, where it was transferred to the groundhog. In Missouri, February 2 has even been officially established as Groundhog Day by the state legislature.
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