Have you ever made a cross by hand? Maybe from two sticks, a couple of corn stalks or blades of grass?
St. Brigid of Ireland, whose feast day is Feb. 1, did the same. Only she used rushes — a form of marsh grass with a pithy stem, something like cattails in Wisconsin swamps.
What came to be known as “St. Brigid’s Cross” has four points and a square, woven center.
In ancient Ireland and most European countries, rushes used to cover floors. Since many floors were hard-packed dirt, rushes caught debris and odors and could be thrown out easily for new grasses.
Brigid, the daughter of an Irish chieftain and a Christian slave, lived in the fifth century. She is also called Brigit or Bride and is known as “Mary of the Gael,” Muire na nGael, because of her Gaelic background. She was not raised by her father, but given into the care of a local druid. It is said that she also lived with her mother, who had been baptized by St. Patrick. Brigid grew up to become Christian, probably under her mother’s influence.
While still a child, Brigid returned to her father’s home. While technically still a slave, because of her mother’s status, Brigid seems to have had her father’s favor. She was known to be generous with her father’s goods, giving them away to the poor.
Later, her father wanted her to marry, but she refused, wanting to give her life to Christ. Brigid even asked her father for land to start a convent in Kildare. He, thinking to outsmart her, said she could have as much land as her cloak could cover. Of course, with God’s help, the cloak covered a couple of acres.
A dying chieftain
The genesis of her uniquely-shaped cross came at the deathbed of a pagan chieftain — perhaps her own father. As the man lay dying, he was restless. To calm him, Brigid sat beside him, weaving a cross from the rushes at their feet while she told him about Christ’s Passion and death. She was so convincing that the chieftain asked to be baptized before he died.
The cross is said to protect from evil, disease, fire and hunger. People weave crosses each spring — now on St. Brigid’s Day (which is the start of spring in Ireland). They place the crosses in their houses, especially over doors, and even in their barns. The parish priest often blesses the rush crosses.
Julianne Stanz, director of Parish Life and Evangelization for the Diocese of Green Bay, recalls celebrating St. Brigid Day in her native Ireland.
“We all made St. Brigid’s Crosses growing up since we grew up not far from her community,” Stanz told The Compass.
On Feb. 1, Irish people also make dolls, called Brídeóg, from rushes. To ensure good luck in the coming year, they may also leave food, bits of cloth or even make clothes for the dolls, hoping for a blessing from St. Brigid. In more modern times, children have carried the dolls from house to house, collecting money for the poor.
Since Brigid was said to have helped her mother at the druid’s dairy when she was a child, today buttery treats are associated with her feast day. These include “boxty cakes” made from potatoes and buttermilk. (See recipe below, provided by Stanz.)
Brigid’s monastery at Kildare — Kil dara or “Temple of the Oak,” as it was known in her childhood — became a center for learning that lasted for centuries in Ireland. Brigid died in 525 A.D. and was buried in the cathedral at Kildare. However, her remains were later moved and today rest in Down Cathedral at Downpatrick in Northern Ireland. There she rests with St. Patrick and relics of St. Columba (Columcille), the three greatest saints of Ireland.
To make a St. Brigid Cross, visit the website of the Brigidine Sisters in Australia at brigidine.org.au/about-us/our-symbols/. They use her cross as their symbol.
1/2 pound hot cooked potatoes
1/2 pound grated raw potatoes
2 cups flour, 1 teaspoon baking soda
1 1/2 cups buttermilk
Butter for frying
Salt and pepper
Drain, peel and mash the hot potatoes. Stir in raw potatoes, flour and baking soda. Salt/pepper to taste. Mix in enough buttermilk to make a stiff batter. Shape in 3-inch cakes about 1/4 inch thick and fry on hot, greased griddle until crispy and golden on both sides.
SOURCES: britannica.com; the Congregation of St. Brigid; blarney.com; catholic.org; rte.ie; aleteia.org; irishcultureandcustoms.com and fisheaters.com