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Herbs for St. Brigid’s Eve

By Beth Schreibman-Gehring, Chairman of Education for The Western Reserve Herb Society unit of The Herb Society

brigid1Brrrr. It is so cold. As we dip into the negative double digits in Northeast Ohio, I find it hard to believe that spring will ever come and yet, I feel a stirring in my sleepy bones, a bit like sap beginning to rise through the trees. It’s a feeling that’s familiar to me. For over 20 years I lived in Burton, Ohio, a sleepy little Northeast Ohio town that’s known for apple fritters, maple syrup, and Sunday pncake breakfasts. We had a small horse farm with an ancient bank barn, an artesian well that I decorated with crystals and an old farmhouse built in 1848 and complete with a Civil War-era ghost.

Life on the farm was a remarkable thing because the seasons made more sense living in the country.  I had horses and barn cats and by simply watching them I could tell when the seasons were beginning to change. That farm was special because I learned there how the seasons were fluid and connected in a great spiral dance, something you don’t see as easily in the city with all of its easy conveniences.

As I write today, the world is so very cold and still. It’s mid-winter, we’re expecting a polar vortex and it seems like the sun will never return.  Yet I swear that if you listen closely, you can almost hear the underground springs begin to quicken and if you put your arms around your favorite tree, you may be able to feel the sap moving from the roots towards the sky. The ground all around you may still be covered in snow; but if you listen with all of your senses, the telltale signs of spring will begin to appear. Walk amongst the hedgerows and you will almost certainly hear some birdsong.

Since the December Solstice, the days have been getting longer in our northern hemisphere and the sun has been moving closer and closer.  Although the air is still absolutely frigid, there are signs that the earth is slowly beginning to ease out of its frozen state. Although we cannot yet feel the touch of the sun, she can. You may know the 1st of February as Imbolc, St. Brigid’s Day or Candlemas. St. Brigid of Kildare and her twin sister, the Goddess Brigid of Eire are said to breathe the first signs of light and life into the earth after the long cold drought of winter and with their touch, slowly the earth begins to awaken.  Imbolc is the feast that celebrates new beginnings, the emergence of buried energies and intense focus…all three of which are needed for a seed or shoot to break through the earth’s crust and emerge as a flower.

brigid2Although many of you will have never heard of it, Imbolc, a Gaelic word that means “ewe’s milk” is a Celtic feast day that finds itself on the year’s wheel halfway between the winter solstice and spring equinox. In early February, I watched year after year as young farm animals were born and their mothers nursed them with rich milk that they produced from the stores of fine hay and grains.  They know instinctively what they are doing, getting them ready to be weaned in the spring when the first shoots of rich green grass appear because they know in their bones that the earth is getting ready to bloom again. Their timing is impeccable.

Along with so many of her creatures, the earth’s roots are waking as well. Although we can’t easily see it, the ground below us is absolutely pregnant with the possibility of spring. I know that if I were still on the farm, I’d venture outside today to find the first few snowdrops, one of the symbols of St. Brigid and her sister goddess beginning to unfurl and the shoots of spicy watercress that were the first fresh greens that I’d eat every spring would be starting to emerge.brigid3The crocus begin to emerge from their sleep and so do the violets, although it will be awhile before we see their beautiful blooms. The catkins on our pussy-willows would be beginning to fatten up and the most obvious sign would be the early plumes of wood smoke rising from the Sugar Cabin in the center of town, where the farmers would bring their barrels of fresh maple sap to be made into the most delicious of sugary treats.

I celebrate Imbolc (or St. Brigids Eve ) every year, because I love to remember just what it meant centuries ago to be so utterly dependent upon the natural world. I love to pretend, just for a moment, that I am still that country woman looking out the window, listening and scanning the world around her for any sign of the return of the sun. When it’s as cold as it has been it’s hard to keep the faith, so every year on this night I light dozens of white candles in silver and pewter candlesticks and decorate my home with evergreen boughs, and branches of rosemary for remembrance and sage for protection, wisdom, and the granting of wishes.

brigid4I have a crystal pitcher of spring water on the table to honor the energies of all of the unseen, underground veins of water that we depend upon for our lives.  I hang the beautiful Brigid’s Cross made of rushes and tied with gold and silver threads that a dear friend brought to me from the Kildare Abbey that was founded by St. Brigid. I always leave a cloth or scarf hung outside on my door to be blessed by the Saint as she passes. It’s known as a ‘Bratog Bride’ in old Irish folklore, and it’s said to be bestowed with magical healing powers or at the very least, a cure for a headache or a sore throat. I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t dream of letting her blessings pass me by.

Just like the Solstice, or Twelfth Night, we’ll invite our neighbors for a bonfire and for dinner. We’ll enjoy freshly baked bread and hard cheeses (remember the fresh milk is for the all babies right now) dense and spicy apple cake, piping hot cabbage dumplings and colcannon, that luscious blend of kale, potatoes, leeks, sweet cream and butter.  There will be Irish whisky, hard cider and of course there will be plenty of laughter.  Nothing warms me up like being in the company of my dearest friends.

Happy Imbolc to all and Blessed St. Brigid’s feast day as well. May you be warm, happy, healthy, and full to the brim with the abundant happiness and healing that this day brings us.

Spring is coming. I promise.