Today is the first day of Spring, dedicated to Saint Brigid (or the goddess, if you prefer). In Scotland it is Là Fhèill Brìghde, while in Ireland it’s Lá Fhéile Bríde, and in Man it is Laa’l Breeshey. A lot of people tend to confuse the day with Candlemas, the Feast of the Purification of Mary, which is the day after on February 2nd. An Irish legend tells of how Mary gave Brigid a festival day before her own because Brigid – popularly seen as the midwife and foster-mother of Jesus by the Gaels – helped distract the crowd as Mary made her way to the temple for her ritual purification after giving birth, by wearing a crown of candles on her head and parading in front of Mary.1
Yesterday my daughter and I, following Scottish tradition, made a dealbh Bride, the ‘icon of Bride’:
Which I then laid out in a specially prepared bed with her slatag Bride (‘Bride’s wand’) next to her, after I had welcomed her in if she wished to visit. Alexander Carmichael gives a description of the festivities associated with the day in the Carmina Gadelica, and there are lots of other sources that give details too. The Carmichael Watson blog has some extra bits of lore from Carmichael’s private notes, which are well worth a read too; it’s a fantastic blog.
My favourite tale associated with the day is The Coming of Angus and Bride, a popular choice for a lot of folks, I think. It’s not, perhaps, the most reliable of tales in terms of authenticity (this tale is the only source that connects Bride and the Cailleach with the seasons, and in a later book by the same author he makes only the briefest mention of their connection with no mention of this tale at all; it seems the author himself is the one who made the connection between them), but it is a beautiful story nonetheless and contains many recognisably ‘authentic’ elements in it – whatever that means! There’s no point reposting it here, since it’s readily available over at sacred-texts.com, but it’s worth mentioning anyway…
Since the day is a celebration of Brigid, there are some songs that are very apt, and I think songs are a fantastic way of learning about, and getting and understanding of, the mindset of a culture. The first one is probably the best known, an Irish song called Gabhaim Molta Bride (‘I Praise Brigid’). The lyrics can be found here, and a video that Nefaeria has already posted (and thanks for the shout out!) is a lovely rendition of it:
As you might notice, the song is in a slightly different format to the lyrics I’ve posted; it seems a lot of traditional songs are very fluid in the way they are sung, particularly this next one, which is a favourite of mine for this festival. It’s called Tha Bainn’ Aig na Caorich Uile (‘All the Sheep Have Milk’), which is very apt for a festival that has traditional roots in associations with sheep’s milk. There are loads of different versions, but I think this one is a nice rendition (and there are a couple of other songs on this sound recording as well – you can explore other versions by clicking the links to the right).
I say ‘traditional roots’ in the sense that not everyone agrees that this is entirely accurate. The oldest sources call the festival Imbolc or Óimelc, and the ninth century Sanas Cormac (‘Cormac’s Glossary’) tells us:
“Ói i.e. a sheep…Óimelc (‘beginning of spring’) i.e. ói-melg ‘ewe-milk’, i.e. that is the time the sheep’s milk comes; melg, i.e. milk, because it is milked.”
Stokes and O’Donovan, Sanas Chormaic, Cormac’s Glossary, 1868, p127.
Some academics have argued that the etymological roots of the word actually relates to washing or lustration, or perhaps even both (see Eric Hamp’s “Imbolc, Oimelc.” Studia Celtica 14/15 (1979/80): 106-13). Others still have settled on simply agreeing that the festival references milking in general; first the lambing, then in late spring, the calving, so if the festival doesn’t refer to literal milking on the day itself, certainly there is the anticipation of it.
We shouldn’t dismiss the associations with lustration out of hand, though; aside from the fact that other cultures had rites of purification common to this time of year, a poem found in a fourteenth century manuscript gives quatrains for each of the quarter day festivals and for Imbolc it tells us:
Fromad cach bíd iar n-urd,
issed dlegair i n-Imbulc,
díunnach laime is coissi is cinn,
is amlaid sin atberim.
Tasting every food in order,
This is what behoves at [Imbolc],
Washing of hand and foot and head,
It is thus I say.
Kuno Meyer, Anecdota Oxoniensia: Mediaeval and Modern Series (Part 8), 1894, p49.
However you celebrate, if or when you celebrate, I hope you have a good one.
1 See Kevin Danaher, The Year in Ireland, 1972, p38, and also my own article Là Fhèill Brìghde for more details on the day.