Of all the Irish Celtic symbols we know and love, Saint Brigid’s cross is still utilized in many Irish homes around the island of Ireland.
However, just like many other Celtic symbols, the history and symbolism of this traditional symbol are murky and complicated. From pagan druids to believers of Christianity, Saint Brigid’s Cross has been claimed as a spiritual symbol by many.
So who was Saint Brigid and why is this simple yet highly respected cross still so prevalent in modern Irish culture? Keep reading to find out.
What Is St Brigid’s Cross?
Associated with Saint Brigid’s day on February 1st, St Brigid’s cross is an Irish symbol that has endured centuries of change in Ireland.
Unlike many other symbols, the cross is simple and does not feature any of the knot-like Celtic patterns we are used to. The woven square centerpiece of the cross features four arms that extend outwards in a simple criss-cross pattern.
Traditionally made from rushes, a bog plant with hollow, cylindrical stems, St Brigid’s cross is often made using straw or reeds if rushes cannot be found. Each arm is then tied with straw, rushes, or string to give this symbol its stoic and stable look.
Although this symbol is now associated with Christianity, its history could be far older.
What Is The Symbolic Meaning Of St Brigid’s Cross?
The symbolism of Saint Brigid’s cross will differ depending on whose perspective you are looking at.
It is widely accepted that this cross is associated with the Patron Saint of Ireland, Saint Brigid. However, if we go further back there are some glaring similarities between Saint Brigid and her pagan counterpart, the Goddess Brigid, that cannot be ignored.
Once blessed by a Catholic priest, St Brigids’ crosses symbolize protection, particularly from fire, evil spirits, and hunger. This is why they are hung around the home. They are used to protect the home from these devastating evils.
The actual physicality of the St Brigid’s crosses symbolizes the very motions you make when you bless yourself with the father, the son and the holy spirit. When your hand touches each shoulder, below the chest, and your forehead. Like traditional Christian crosses, Brigid’s cross symbolizes a person’s faith in God.
Believers of ancient Celtic faiths, such as Paganism, believe that the story of Saint Brigid was hijacked from the folklore of the Goddess Brighid, one of the Tuatha de Dannan. Brighid also had two sisters with the same name and so these sisters are seen as one single deity. Considering that the number three is divinely important to Pagans, this comes as no surprise.
Brighid was the goddess of fire. She is associated with Spring, fertility, new life, and the protection of poets and healers. She has been celebrated on the first day of Spring which falls on the 1st of February for centuries, although the pagan name for this feast day celebration is Imbolc.
It is also thought that Brighid is a protector of newborn children as there are stories that tell of how she leans over the cradle of every child. This story alone connects this pagan goddess to the Christian saint.
Who Was St Brigid?
Born into slavery, Brigid’s parentage has been widely debated but the most accepted theory is that her mother, Brocca, was a slave who had been baptized by St Patrick. It is believed that Brigid’s father was the Leinster Chieftain, Dubthach.
One of the many stories tells that once Dubthach found Brocca was pregnant, he sold her to a druid landowner. Once Brigid was born in 451 AD, it is said that she vomited up any food given to her by the druid because he was impure. This is one of the very first times, but not the last, that St Brigid’s purity was spoken of.
Around the age of 10, Brigid is thought to have converted her druid owner to Christianity and then she was sent back to her father, betrothed to a bard.
At age 40, Brigid founded a monastery in County Kildare called the Church of the Oak. This community began as a holy nunnery but over time it became the first double abbey for both monks and nuns.
The origins of the Christian St Brigid’s cross are just as cloudy but the most widely believed story says that the cross came into being as She sat at the deathbed of an old pagan chieftain, although some claim it was her father. As the old pagan chieftain lay delirious and dying, she picked up the rushes that lay on the floor and began weaving a cross.
The chieftain gained some lucidity and asked what she was doing. The calm and comforting way she spoke to the dying man as she wove the cross and explained the meaning of this Christian cross is said to have convinced him to get baptised into Christianity just before he died.
How Did She Become A Saint?
Brigid died in Kildare around 525 AD and was buried in a tomb before the high altar of her founded abbey.
After some time, the members of the early Irish church declared her a saint. This was mostly to do with her devotion to God and her holy achievements in Ireland.
The many stories of Saint Brigid speak of her miraculous activities during her lifetime. Such as when she fell from a horse and hit her head. Her blood mixed with the water on the ground and two sisters, who had no hearing, suddenly regained the ability to hear.
She is also said to have cured a man of leprosy by blessing the holy water he was being washed in. Another story is of how she milked a cow, that had already been milked that day, and it then produced more than ten times the amount of milk a cow should be able to provide. She did this to nourish the local starving people.
Although these stories are likely to be the product of imagination, they all centre around the healing abilities she was thought to possess and was another reason why she was given sainthood after her death.
Once she had risen to the ranks of becoming a saint her body was exhumed and reburied alongside St Patrick and St Columba.
How Is St Brigid’s Cross Used Today?
This holy sign is still used the same way it was all those years ago. Once woven, the cross is placed above the doorway of a home on the 1st of February to protect it from evil spirits, death, hunger, disease and fire.
However, much like many other Celtic symbols, this cross has made its way into more modern iterations.
Jewelry is a very popular way that Saint Brigid’s cross is used today. Many Celtic silversmiths have created a traditional and more modern version of this symbol to be worn as necklaces, bracelets, rings, and earrings.
It is also a popular design for those with Irish heritage or just a love for Irish design to have inked permanently on their skin. Sometimes this cross is tattooed on its own or as an element of a larger tattoo.
As well as jewellery and tattoos, Saint Brigid’s cross can be found on homewares like blankets, wall art, furniture and clothing.
Saint Brigid and her cross are full of intrigue and mystery. So, it comes as no surprise that many people still have a lot of questions about this holy woman and her poignant Christian symbol.
Here are some common questions and their answers that we see often asked by those interested in the history and symbolism of the cross.
Is St. Brigid Still Celebrated In Ireland Today?
Yes, St Brigid is still celebrated all over Ireland, although not with quite as much enthusiasm as before.
Many people still make new crosses to place in their homes on the 1st of February. Many churches will also craft this cross design to hand out to their congregation during Saint Brigid’s Mass.
What Is St Brigid The Patron Saint Of?
The Christian Saint Brigid is the patron saint of Ireland. However, she is a pretty dynamic saint and Ireland is not the only thing she symbolises to the Irish people. She is also the Patron Saint of dairymaids, cattle, midwives, Irish nuns, and newborn babies.
One story where she is said to have changed water into beer for a leper colony and miraculously provided enough beer for over 18 churches from one single barrel is why she is also thought of as the patron of beer.
Where Should You Hang St Brigid’s Cross?
There is no right or wrong place to hang St Brigid’s cross. However, this woven symbol is traditionally displayed above the front door or in the kitchen.
The unique shape of this cross means it can be easily hung off the corner of a door frame, which is the traditional way to keep this protective symbol in your home.
I am a British-born copywriter who moved to Ireland over a decade ago and have been captivated by Irish culture, landscape and folklore. I enjoy sharing my passion for Ireland through my writing as a freelancer.