Lighting the Fire: Festival celebrates Christian and pagan icon, St. Brigid

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Wilmington composer Barbara Gallagher sits at the piano inside the sanctuary at 5th Avenue United Methodist Church, where the St. Brigid’s Festival will take place. Photo by Amanda Greene/WilmingtonFAVS.com

Wilmington composer Barbara Gallagher sits at the piano inside the sanctuary at 5th Avenue United Methodist Church, where the St. Brigid’s Festival will take place. Photo by Amanda Greene/WilmingtonFAVS.com

In the fourth century, Brigid—a.k.a. Brigit or Mary of the Gael, as she is popularly known in Ireland—was the daughter of Christian slave Brocca and pagan chieftain of Leinster Dubhthach. February 1st is celebrated as St. Brigid’s Catholic feast day worldwide, but in Ireland there are Feile Bride Festivals of music, Irish dancing, processions, and the weaving of the St. Brigid’s cross. The cross comes made of reeds, with its square center symbolizing peace and God’s protection. (Last fall, at a separate St. Brigid of Kildare gathering, a group won the Guinness Book of World Records challenge for the most St. Brigid’s crosses woven at one sitting.)

As the patroness of Ireland, St. Brigid grew in her spirituality and traveled throughout the country, converting people to Christianity. Legend has it, she once negotiated a piece of pasture land in Kildare, granted to her by the King of Leinster, for reducing the size of his ears. She agreed to settle for the part of land that her cloak would cover, but when she threw her cloak, it spread across 5,000 acres.
That is one of Wilmington composer Barbara Gallagher’s favorite stories about the Irish saint’s miracles. Gallagher has spent the last 20 years learning about Brigid. She wrote an operetta called “St. Brigid’s Songs” in collaboration with local poet John Marshall a few years ago. It culminated from her years of research, which she describes as a sort of “Celtic fantasia.”

“[St. Brigid’s] strength … for me, that’s her big characteristic,” Gallagher says, as she sits in the office at 5th Avenue United Methodist Church. “Just with her strength of will and spirituality, she went out in her chariot in Ireland to convert people.”
But St. Brigid keeps returning to Gallagher. In fact, Gallagher found the first St. Brigid’s Festival in the fellowship hall at 5th Avenue United Methodist Church (409 S. Fifth Ave.), in downtown Wilmington.

To be held February 1st from 2 p.m. to 3:30 p.m., the festival will include making St. Brigid’s crosses, playing musical selections from the show “St. Brigid Songs,” and enjoying Celtic tunes by the band, Out On the Ocean. The event is free, but donations will be accepted for the Fifth Avenue UMC Building Fund. As well, to represent Brigid’s sense of charity and help for the poor, the church will be collecting canned food donations for Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard.

Fire is associated with Brigid because of her passion for ministry. An eternal flame was lit outside of her burial site in Ireland. Many of her icons show her holding a cross in one hand and a candle or open flame in the other. The local festival will include a procession to light her flame in the church’s courtyard.

As well, St. Brigid was known for making butter, oat bread, and beer. Gallagher plans to have those foods represented at the festival, but to keep it a family affair, she will substitute ginger ale or spiced cider for the beer.

“[The festival comes] at that time of year, in the dead of winter, when you kind of need something like this,” Gallagher adds.
The celebration of St. Brigid’s Day falls on the same day as Imbolc, the pagan solstice celebration of spring, which honors the ancient goddess, Brigit. Some scholars suggest believers combined the myths of the fiery pagan goddess with the ministry of St. Brigid.

“In Ireland, many people celebrate Brigit the goddess and Brigid the saint on February 1st, and they don’t have a conflict with it,” the composer adds.

Wilmington’s festival will pay homage to that connection and include poetry readings about St. Brigid and Imbolc. Co-opting pagan elements in Christian feasts and ceremonies has been a tradition of the faith for thousands of years.

Chris Dayett, music director at Holy Cross Episcopal Church, played Brigid’s father in “Songs of St. Brigid.” He will be one of the performers at the festival. Brigid’s story of faith in the face of adversity captivates him.

“That a father would basically sell his daughter into slavery is a pretty big thing,” Dayett says. “The fact that she never gave up on her faith and remembered what her mother had taught her amazes me. She becomes this nun and goes around doing all this good and performing all these miracles,” he said. “I just love the story.”

DETAILS:
St. Brigid’s Day Festival
Fifth Avenue United
Methodist Church
409 S. 5th Avenue
Free, but donations and canned goods accepted.
Barbara Gallagher: (910) 452-2949 or barbrgallagher@aol.com

Amanda Greene is the editor of Wilmington Faith & Values. Do you have a volunteer opportunity to highlight? Email her at Amanda.Greene@ReligionNews.com or call 910-520-3958

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