Brigid is the patroness of Ireland. She was born in the middle of the 5th century to a pagan father and a Christian slave mother, about 50 years after the death of St. Patrick. Brigid's mother was sold away around the time of Brigid's birth, at the insistence of Brigid's father's wife, to a Druidic poet. At the age of 10, however, Brigid was sent back to live with her father who ran a dairy. Brigid took over running the dairy, though she enraged her father by giving much of the produce away as charity.
A few years later, Brigid visitted a Christian monastery. As she entered, a priest had been recounting a vision he'd had and when he looked up and saw Brigid, he declared that she was the woman from his vision. Shortly thereafter, Brigid went to live again with her mother, who also worked in a dairy. Brigid broke their produce into 13 portions, in honor of Christ and the apostles, with the thirteenth portion being larger than the others, and this she gave away to the poor. Miraculously, it is said, their pantry was always filled despite their poverty and generosity. Brigid's life persuaded the Druid poet who owned her mother and his wife to convert to Christianity, and they were baptized. Moreover, the poet granted Brigid's mother her freedom, and so the two women returned to Brigid's father's clan.
Of course, Brigid's father and his wife were still displeased by her constantly giving away her father's wealth to the poor, so Brigid was taken by her father to the Christian king of Leinster, Dunlag, to be his bond maid. While waiting in her father's chariot while he spoke with the king, a leper approached Brigid, and she gave him her father's sword. When Brigid was brought before the king, he recognized her extraordinary faith and convinced her father to grant her freedom. As a freewoman, Brigid became marriageable within her father's clan. But, she chose instead to dedicate herself to the service of God as a virgin. It has been said that Brigid, who was very beautiful, would take pains to disfigure her features in order to make herself undesireable to the men around her. Eventually, her father relented and allowed her to take vows; Brigid became the first nun in Ireland.
Brigid formed the first religious society of women in Ireland. It is said that when she took her vows, her disfigurement vanished and her beauty was restored. The sisters made a convent at The Church of the Oak, on land in Kildare given to them by Dunlag, King of Leinster. The convent grew, and Brigid travelled all over Ireland to begin others. In this way, she became known throughout the country for her wisdom and kindness and came to be called "Mary of the Gaels."
Brigid died in 525, and her sisters continually kept a fire burning in her honor--it did not go out until 1220. After this, it was relit and burned for another 400 years, when it was finally extinguished in the aftermath of the Protestant Reformation. Because of this fire and the placement of her feastday on the day before Candlemas, Brigid has always been associated with light and fire. In Ireland, it is still tradition to light a bonfire on St. Brigid's Day. Brigid is the patroness of dairy maids, infants, midwives, blacksmiths, poets, nuns, and students.
Besides the bonfires mentioned above, here are some ways to celebrate St. Brigid's Day:
- Gather and bring donations to a local food kitchen in honor of Brigid's charity to the poor.
- Donate to or volunteer for a local program that helps women and children, in honor of Brigid's selfless care of mothers and their children.
- Educate yourself about midwifery or pray for a local midwifery practice, in honor of St. Brigid.
- Pray for expecting mothers and their unborn children.
- Make traditional Irish foods, such as colcannon, corned beef and cabbage, or soda bread to share with your family. You can even make special St. Brigid's Oatcakes (recipe in previous post, below).
- Make a St. Brigid's Cross. Legend has it that during her travels, Brigid sat on the floor of a dying chieftain's home, making such a cross out of the rushes on his floor. When he asked her what she was doing, she told him about Jesus, and the chieftain came to faith and was baptized. It became tradition to make these crosses on Brigid's feastday. After the cross was made, it was blessed with holy water and the prayer, "May the blessing of God, Father, Son and Holy Ghost be on this Cross and on the place where it hangs and on everyone who looks on it." It was then hung on the door or in the front window of the house and left up all year to be burned and replaced the following year on February 1st.