Imbolc, or Imbolg, is an ancient Celtic festival celebrating the beginning of spring. It is a Cross Quarter Day, marking the halfway point between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. Traditionally celebrated on the first day of the February, it derives from the Irish words "i mbolg", meaning "in the belly", and refers to the pregnancy of ewes - and therefore the first signs of new life for the coming year.
The festival has been celebrated in Ireland since at least neolithic times, evidenced by the fact that the Mound of the Hostages (ca. 3,000 B.C.E.) on the Hill of Tara is aligned with the sunrise at Imbolc and Samhain (the cross quarter day between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice). Imbolc honours the Celtic Goddess Brigid, who is associated with healing, smithing, and poetry. Brigid has close similarities to the mythological goddess, Danu, the mother goddess of the Tuatha Dé Danann (tribe of Danu) who were believed to be among the first wave of settlers to Ireland. When Ireland was christianised in the fifth century A.D., the festival became attributed to Saint Brigid, who was abbess of a renowned convent in county Kildare.
The Saint Brigid's Cross is an emblematic symbol associated with Lá Fhéile Bríde (Festival of Brigid). As with many christian symbols, it has its origins in ancient pagan practices. The most common form is the four-armed version that is hung over the door in Irish homes to ward off evil and protect the house from fire. There is also a three-armed form, or triskele, that is associated with cattle and is usually hung in the cowshed for protection. Less common is the type with a Celtic binding knot in the centre in which the interlacing is believed to act as a barrier to evil.
Traditionally, they are made from rushes that are pulled rather than cut ... although I can tell you that it is much easier to cut them! If you can't get rushes, you could also use drinking straws to make your Brigid's Cross.
The four-armed cross is the most common type and the one that I learned to make as a young girl at school. I like to begin by pre-folding a few rushes as this makes it easier to get started.
Let's think of each of the four arms of the cross as the cardinal points of north, south, east, and west. Start by placing a rush with the folded side pointing south and the open end pointing north. Then, with its closed end pointing west and the open end pointing east, insert the second rush through the centre of the first rush.
Slide the two rushes until both folded ends are tucked tightly into each other.
The third rush is placed through the second rush with its folded end pointing north and its open end pointing south.
Again, tuck the folded end firmly into the centre.
The fourth rush is placed through the third rush with its folded end pointing east and its open end pointing south.
The centre of the cross is now complete. It is important to hold it securely to create a tightly-woven cross.
From here on, you will be folding the newest rush over both parts of the previous rush rather than interlocking them.
It is easy to lose track of the pattern if you're not familiar with it, so it's best to establish a routine of folding the rushes and rotating the cross in a particular manner. I find it best to fold the newest rush with the open end pointing towards me over the eastern-pointing arm, and then rotate the entire cross counter-clockwise by a quarter turn so that the open end of the newest rush then points eastwards. In this way, the newest rush is always secured by the next rush and you can work easily with your right hand. If you are ciotóg (or left-hand dominant), then fold the newest rush over the western-pointing arm and rotate the cross clockwise each time.
The cross will feel a little loose at first but, as long as you keep holding the centre tightly, it will firm up as successive rows of rushes are folded in.
Continue working until you have built up at least six rushes on each arm. Then tie the loose ends securely and trim off the excess.
Now, I have to share with you what happened when I finished making my crosses. I had tied the loose ends of each arm with some extra-strong thread. When Hubby came home from work, I showed him what I had made. He told me that, when he was learning to make Brigid's crosses in school, it was a point of honour to be able to complete them without using any string. Instead, they would tie off the ends using the rushes. So, of course, I had to go back and change all mine!
Because this was my first time trying to tie the ends with rushes, I left the thread on underneath - just in case!
To finish with rushes, choose a soft, pliable rush and flatten it by running it between your fingers. With your thumb, hold the centre of the rush against the arm of the cross. Then, with your other hand, wrap one end of the rush three times around the arm and tuck it back through the arm of the cross. I found it useful to use a skewer to open a passage between the reeds where I could pass the end of the rush through.
Trim that end of the rush. Then wrap the other end of the rush around the arm of the cross two-three times in the opposite direction, and tuck it through the centre of the arm in the same way. It took me a couple of goes to be able to do this neatly. Here is one of my better ones.
I have to admit that it does look way better than the thread.
The triskele, or three-armed version, is created in a very similar way to the cross. Start with three rushes, folded and interlinked as shown here:
Pull the rushes firmly together in a triangular shape.
Again, be careful to hold the centre tightly as you work.
Gradually build up the interwoven layers by folding each rush over the open ends of the previous rush. Use the same system of folding and rotating described above for the cross.
When you are happy with the shape, tie off the loose ends and trim the excess.
Celtic Binding Knot
This cross is the easiest to visualise, but the trickiest to make as you can't hold it in one hand as you work. I found it easiest to work on the floor for this one.
Start by making groups of three rushes. These will be woven together in an under-and-over pattern. Start with two vertical and two horizontal rows.
Then build up the shape by adding one vertical row, followed by one horizontal row until you are happy with the size. As you weave, alternate the over-and-under pattern with each row you add: if the previous row went over a group of rushes, then the next row will go under that group of rushes.
For this one, I flattened the centre as I worked to help the rushes to knit together.
Since you can't hold the centre as you work, placing a heavy weight in the centre helps to keep it together. I used a cast iron trivet.
Most commonly, this type of cross will have three rows in each direction (as in the top cross in the photo below), but it is believed that more interweaving provides a greater protection against evil.
Make your own
Making a Brigid's Cross is a fun seasonal craft, and you can even get the kids involved. Depending on your personal beliefs, your cross could represent a pagan talisman to ward off evil, a christian symbol of the cross, or simply be used as fascinating piece of seasonal decor to hang in your home.