A subtropical Brigid’s Cross, made from a fern by the author.
In New Orleans, celebrations of Imbolc (or Oimelc or Candlemas or Groundhog’s Day or whatever you prefer to call it) inevitably get tangled up in our Carnival season. This is not necessarily a bad thing.
Carnival starts here on Twelfth Night, which we reckon as January 6. Celebrations continue for weeks on end, building to a climactic finale on Fat Tuesday, also known as Mardi Gras. The date of Mardi Gras varies, but it’s easy to calculate. It’s 40 days, not counting Sundays, before the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox. Simple, right? Another method: Mardi Gras is always the day before Ash Wednesday. That means the earliest Mardi Gras can occur is February 3, but it can be as late as March 9.
Thus Imbolc always lands somewhere in the Carnival season. Our Carnival celebrations take many shapes, but the preeminent form is without question the parade. New Orleanians love to parade and will do so at the drop of a hat. Carnival parades come in all sizes, from teensy impromptu foot parades to second lines to full-on gigantic all-day-suckers with motorized floats and copious amounts of pomp and spectacle. The vibe ranges from downright raunchy to upper-crust snooty. A festive atmosphere pervades, and there truly is something for everyone.
Established parading clubs are called krewes, and some of them go back well over a century. Many of krewes embrace esoteric, magical, and mythological themes. Yet none resonate so well with the seasonal celebration of Imbolc as a relative newcomer, the Krewe of Brid.
Brid (or Bríd) is of course just one way to spell the name of the ancient Celtic triple goddess of poetry, healing and smithcraft. Other spellings include Bride, Brigid, Brigit, Bridget or Brighid. Many readers will be aware of the ancient connection between Brid and Imbolc. Imbolc is known as Brigid’s Day; it’s also the feast day of Saint Brigit of Kildare.
Krewe of Brid banner from inaugural parade, New Orleans, 2008. Note triple spiral motif. Photo by Nicole Michel; used by permission.
The Krewe of Brid, then, is an organization of women taking the ancient goddess as their patron. They recognize three aspects of the goddess, sisters with the same name: Brid of the Forge, Brid of the Hearth, and Brid of the Spirit. According to krewe lore, these represent the archetypes of Warrior, Mother and Muse. Each year, the krewe selects three women from the community to be the Three Brids, and these three are given a place of honor in their annual parade.
One of the co-founders of the krewe is Mary Hogan, a friend and a personal heroine of mine. I recently sat down with her to talk about the krewe and its origins. She told me that it began after New Orleans went under water in 2005.
“One of the original ideas, one of the sparks, was of course right after the flood, rebuilding a community of friends. Most of us, the original members, and certainly the first four or five women I brought together to talk about forming a club, we lost — well, we lost friends. Friends who had returned and changed their minds and left, or gutted and cleaned, or took care of an elderly parent or whatever, and left the city, friends who never came back. A couple of us actually lost a friend or two through death.”
That sense of loss continued well after the flood waters receded.
“And so here we were. December 2006. It’s like we were going through these little losses all over again, of losing our community, whether it was friends or the places where we’d run into each other. The grocery store wasn’t our neighborhood grocery store anymore. There was no neighborhood grocery store. There was hardly a neighborhood. So how could you go on Sunday morning to grab a gallon of milk and run into a buddy and have a conversation?
“The infrastructure of our human community was gone, so our human community was falling apart. And it was an excuse, it was a reason to get together and do things together and actively rebuild our community of women, our girlfriends.”
Mary also cited some “really unthinking comments” made by Warren Riley, who was chief of police at the time. This gets into Carnival politics and neighborhood politics, so bear with me.
There used to be lots of Carnival krewes that paraded in their own neighborhoods across the city. But over the years, most all the big krewes have moved to one part of town. They roll along what’s become known as the “Uptown parade route.” The exception is the biggest of all the superkrewes, Endymion, which still holds its massive parade in Mid-City. That’s the part of town where Mary and I both live.
After Katrina, Endymion was forced to move Uptown for a season. Our neighbors were not happy about this, and neither were the Uptowners, but we accepted it. We were all in a state of shock, as most of the city still lay in ruins. That Carnival was balm for the soul, a stirring assertion that we were still alive.
One year later, Mid-City was making progress, and we fully expected Endymion to return. To conserve resources, police tried to wrangle some Uptown krewes to the Mid-City route. This led to a kerfuffle and a power struggle, and some prominent people said uncharitable things. The mayor got involved. Ultimately it was decided that Endymion would go Uptown again. That’s when Warren Riley, Superintendent of the New Orleans Police Department, said it was a matter of public safety. “The Mid-City area, with all of the blight and with the abandoned houses, makes it a lot harder to control what’s going on,” Riley said. “We certainly wouldn’t want to see some kid getting pulled into some abandoned building.”
This was like salt in the wound for those of us who had returned to the devastated neighborhood and were doing our damnedest to rebuild. The message seemed to be: “You don’t wanna bring kids to Mid-City.” As Mary puts it, “We had not only brought our kids to Mid-City, we had actively and affirmatively decided to rebuild our houses and raise our children in Mid-City.”
The insult provided the extra impetus for forming the Krewe of Brid.
“So we said, OK, we’re going to have a marching club of all women. And we’re going to get together every month and have our little chatty things, and we’ll plan social and community service activities in between those monthly meetings. And we do. And we did. And it was good.”
Furthermore, Mary said, “We are about marching in a neighborhood. We will never march on the Uptown route. Or any other pre-established route. We purposely looked to the second lines and the other kinds of marching clubs for how do we go get a permit, who do we talk to. We looked for that model rather than trying to get into the Mardi Gras Task Force. We purposefully didn’t want to compete with [the big Carnival organizations], we didn’t want to deal with that, we wanted to have more fun than anxiety.”
It all makes intuitive sense to me: a krewe of women, honoring and celebrating women, in the name of an ancient goddess. It’s a perfect package deal. Nevertheless, I asked Mary: Why women?
Brid of the Spirit 2008 Ashlye Keaton and Mary Hogan, High Priestess of Brid. Photo by Michael Homan; used by permission.
“I was at a stage in my life where I realized I had a really good cadre of female friends, which I only have had periodically in my life. So that was really in the forefront of my mind. I really was mourning losing some of those individuals. And as I started talking with girlfriends who were still in the city and having to make that particular effort to get together because we weren’t running into each other in the grocery store or whatever — all of that just kind of started simmering.
“Thinking about it from the perspective of men versus women, I think in part it was maybe a little selfish that we said OK, this is for women, and in part it was just a natural evolution. It was: We’re missing our girlfriends. We’re missing doing girl things. We’re missing talking about doing girl things.
The krewe is actually at the point now, seven years on, where men are being considered. One of the pieces of the current plan, assigned to one of the volunteer members, is to think through and decide how do to welcome men into the krewe.
“There are men who want to come and hang out and march and be members and etcetera,” Mary said. “Going forward, men are going to be an integral part of the club.”
That doesn’t mean the krewe will lose its focus on women. The krewe will change over time, but there are some key things future krewe leaders will remember when facing those changes.
“We are about women and family and things that are important to women. We’re all about women and their glorious variety and diversity. Men will be more formally recognized and involved in the krewe than they have been in the past. But still we’re about the community of women, the energy of women, what women do. The krewe is for women and the men who love them.”
Two members of Krewe of Brid in costume for the 2008 theme: Pothole Patrol. If you’ve driven on the streets of New Orleans, you understand. Photo by the author.
Since the krewe always marches around the time of Imbolc, I was curious to know if Brid was selected as patron specifically to capitalize on this correspondence. Turns out it was coincidence.
“No, that was just a serendipity,” Mary told me. She further explained that she was the one charged with finding the right goddess. “I had a list of instuctions, and the first instruction was flood. We’re looking for water themes, home themes, rebuilding themes. The next was women. Rebuilding, women, family, flood, women.” With those main themes, she first investigated Polynesian pantheons. “We knew we did not want Greek, Roman. Those are all taken, let’s not even bother to look it up. So I started actually looking Polynesian, Caribbean, and there were a couple of goddesses — well, Pele was one. But fire is such an element. Fire, volcanoes, etcetera. Nothing was resonating.”
She changed tack and started investigating the history of her neighborhood, which lies right at the border between Mid-City and Lakeview.
“What’s the history of Lakeview? And then I’ll look at the history of Mid-City, I’ll look at the history of City Park, somewhere in there will be a spark of inspiration. Well of course, it was a duh moment. I think I did literally hit my forehead.
“So the New Basin Canal was being built. Who’s digging the New Basin Canal? Indians, slaves and Irish. Irish! Duh! Major, major immigrant group for New Orleans. Go look at Irish mythology.”
The New Basin Canal was constructed in the 1830s and 1840s. Workers had a tough time in the swampy area. It was deemed too expensive to subject slaves to the risk of yellow fever. Therefore most of the work was done by Irish immigrants.
“We’re all mutts of one kind or another anyway, we’re all immigrants. Potato famine years, etcetera, women were following their men or leading their men or leaving their families and going off on their own, emigrating from what they knew, from everything they knew, all the community they knew, and going to a new place to build a new community. OK, so we’re here already, and we’re re-building. It was that instant, that was the aha duh moment.”
Mary started looking through the mythology of Ireland. She found Brid and said, “I like this. It’s every aspect of womanhood, and as I dug a little bit deeper I found the interpretation of the talents or skills. So that was it. Pretty much once I found Brid it all started falling into place.”
A footnote: The Krewe of Brid did not roll in 2012 and is not rolling in 2013, more’s the pity. “It’s not rolling this year, no,” Mary told me. “My excuse is that we’re an all-volunteer organization, and I’m the main culprit. But we have a plan in place to revitalize, and it’s a matter of executing the plan, which we’re working on.” I wholeheartedly hope that in 2014 I will get to see Brid again — all three of Her.
- Official website for Krewe of Brid (not quite up-to-date)
- More on Brigid from The Ancient Art of Enchanting the Landscape (hat tip to Nicole Youngman)
- A mix of songs for Imbolc. From Celtic folk to Italian metal, this is eclectic mix I scrounged together myself — hope you enjoy it.
- If you have ever wondered about how ancient goddesses like Brigid became syncretized with Christian saints like St. Brigit, I highly recommend Pamela Berger’s book, The Goddess Obscured. It’s clear, concise for an academic tome, well-researched, authoritative and absolutely fascinating.