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St. Bridget’s cross hung over door,
Which did the house from fire secure,
As Gillo thought, O powerful charm!
To keep a house from taking harm:
And tho’ the dogs and servants slept,
By Bridget’s care the house was kept.

James Farewell, Irish Hudibras (1689), a satire of Irish life from Henry Glassie, Passing the Time in Ballymenone: Culture and History of an Ulster Community (Philadelphia, 1982)

Straw and Corn

As the grape vine is associated with wine and the blood of Christ, wheat sheaves when placed on a cross represent the body of Christ.

Devonshire cross

Corn (general term for wheat) dollies were made at the end of harvest in the European tradition long before Christianity. These were bent or woven into braids, baskets, and figures. With the conversion to Christianity, new straw forms were designed, such as this version of a Devonshire cross made by Nan Rooksby Rohan of Berkeley, CA. Traditional design has the corn heads or ears spray from the top and side terminals.

The art of plaiting and folding of straw goes back to early times, usually associated with the end of the pastoral year. M. Lambeth, A Golden Dolly: The Art, Mystery and History of Corn Dollies (London, 1969) p. 97-100, writes about a number of traditions. In some counties in England, at the end of harvest the last stand of corn was trampled or slashed down to keep the bad spirits of the corn at bay. Other rituals around the end of the harvest include making a traditional dolly of either the last or best of the final harvest called the knack (sounds like "neck,"). In this tradition, the knack represents the corn spirit that will reawaken in spring. The dolly is hung in the farmhouse. As often happens, pre-Christian and Christian traditions came to exist side by side.

Making straw crosses and straw figures are part of the harvest tradition in many farming communities. In 2003, the Historical Museum in Jacksonville, Oregon, had a large display of straw forms and crosses. Below is one of the smaller forms.

harvest cross
St. Brigid Part 2
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St. Brigid’s Cross

Traditions surrounding St. Brigid have had difficulty fitting within the modern world. One issue is determining where the historical St. Brigid begins and where the goddess of the Celtic people, Brigit, who had similar attributes, stops.(8) According to many views, the Celtic goddess was converted in order to Christianize the Celtic spring festival Imbolic, "in the belly" (lambs are born around this time).

While reports that during Vatican II, along with St. Nicholas and St. Valentine, St. Brigid was decanonized are untrue, traditional celebrations surrounding her feast day have decreased over modern times.(9) St. Brigid’s cross was removed as a symbol of the main Irish television network in 1988.(10)

On the other hand, a renewed interest in Celtic Christianity has promoted St. Brigid and the care for other people that she represents. In 1983, five young men in Derry began the St. Brigid’s Peace Cross Campaign. They made St. Brigid’s crosses and sold them within their neighborhood. The proceeds were donated to Action from Ireland. Since then others have continued this campaign for justice and peace in the world. Additionally, the sacred flame that was maintained in her convent until the 12th century was symbolically relit in 1993 by the St. Brigidine Sisters in Kildare, who are active in community services.

The tradition of making the cross on St. Brigid’s Eve, January 31, continues in rural areas surrounding her site. The cross is woven left to right, after the movement of the sun, which may be one origin for the cross. Made with freshly pulled rushes, these crosses are initially green.

Various family and community procedures surround St. Brigid’s Day, which involve both the weaving and the distribution of the cross. A few of the different customs from the 20th century include:

  • A girl is chosen to represent St. Brigid. Accompanied by other girls, she goes to each house in the village. Carrying the crosses, she is greeted as the saint, responds by singing a Gaellic prayer, and presents the cross.(11)
  • Mould writes, "The crosses are sprinkled with holy water, or where the custom obtains, taken to church to be blessed at the Mass of St. Brigid’s day. Then they are placed in house or byre to bring good fortune for the year and keep away harm."(12)
  • E. Estyn Evans writes about a tradition in southwest Ireland where boys instead of girls play a prominent role. A doll made of straw "was carried from house to house by ’Biddy Boys‘, wearing straw masks such as are used by mummers and by strawboys at weddings, and singing songs in honor of the saint. They would solicit gifts and end the day in jollification. The evening was celebrated by a supper of pancakes taken from a plate laid on a rush cross and as on the other quarter-days prognostications were made." (13)

St. Brigid’s crosses can last for years. In thatched houses, the previous year’s crosses were placed in the thatch on the inside. Crosses were hung above the window as well. (14) When the straw has nearly disintegrated, the proper disposal is to either burn or bury the cross. Burying the cross in the field is said to assure good crops. (15)

St. Brigid ’s celebrations are very limited in America, especially in comparison to the parades and costumes around Halloween based on another Celtic festival, Samhain, an end of the harvest event, and St. Patrick’s Day. Still, one occasionally finds the cross in interesting places. A St. Brigid’s cross hung on the outside wall above the entrance to offices at the Mission San Juan Baptista a few years ago. A gold, silver, or pewter version of the cross is a popular brooch, especially as a way of combining Christian and Celtic spirituality.

Other St. Brigid’s Crosses

There are other variations of the cross woven out of either rushes or straw, which are also associated with St. Brigid. These include a three-armed version for the cowshed, various straw-square patterns, a six-band interlaced pattern, and a cross in a circle.(16) The most primitive form is the three arm cross or triskele, which is associated with cattle, and is placed in the byre or cowshed for protection. (The wealth of a person in Celtic society was based on cattle not land.) The triskele was not blessed by the Church. Next to it is a cross made with a "binding knot," which acts as a barrier to evil sprits. It is woven and placed in rafters of a house on Halloween in County Galway to keep those spirits out.(17) Other forms are variations of a straw-square pattern. The square pattern is found in other countries, including Sweden and Estonia. St. Brigid cross variations
These crosses were woven by Nan Rooksby Rohan, Berkeley, CA, to match Irish folk designs
St. Brigid cross variations
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  1. Eugenia Shanklin, Donegal’s Changing Traditions An Ethnographic Study (New York, 1985) p. 42.[Return]
  2. Pope John Paul II mentions her fondly on June 26, 1999 in an address to Irish Bishops. Mould, p. 47, explains that a saint was declared by the local bishop up to 1159, when the pope was the only one who could declare a saint. The modern canonization process begins with Urban VIII in 1625. [Return]
  3. St. Brigid is the patron saint of Irish TV, as well as the patron saint for ale, blacksmithing, and traditional pastoral and midwivery roles. The cross was the original logo for Telefis Eireann, which became RTE one. It appears on a recent 50p stamp showing a soap opera on an old tv set, marking the anniversary of broadcasting in Ireland. [Return]
  4. Hugh de Blacam, The Saints of Ireland: The Life-Stories of SS. Brigid and Columcille, (Milwaukee, 1942) on EWTN Online Services accessed 11/4/2003. (This is captured in the 2002 PBS special, The Search for Ancient Ireland, Episode 2: Saints.) In 1690, when King William’s army invaded the country near St. Brigid’s site (Faughart) all the people fled their houses. In each house they found green St. Brigid’s crosses. The soldiers believed the crosses were placed to protect the house from them.[Return]
  5. Mould, p. 60. Usually, crosses for the barn were not blessed. [Return]
  6. E. Estyn Evans, Irish Folk Ways (New York, 1957) p. 270, [Return]
  7. T.G.F. Paterson, "Brigid’s Crosses in County Armagh," Ulster Journal of Archeology, Vol 8, Parts 1 and 2, 1945, p. 47. [Return]
  8. Paterson. [Return]
  9. Paterson, 46-47. Pennick (1998), pp. 92-93. Evans, 268-9.[Return]
  10. Pennick (1998), p. 93.[Return]

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