This Way to Christmas  by Ruth Sawyer

St. Bridget

In Ireland St. Bridget is sometimes called "St. Bridhe of the Mantle," and that is because the people of the hills would not be forgetting the way she came to be at Bethlehem when Our Lord was born, or the rest of the miracle:

It was to the little island of Iona that she came when she was naught but a child, and her coming there was strange. Her father was Doughall Donn, a prince of Ireland; but because of a sin, which he swore was not his, he was banished from his Green Isle. He took the child and left at night in a small boat; and the winds blew and the waves carried them toward Alba. But when they were still a long way off the winds blew into a storm and the waves reared themselves into a tempest and the boat was dashed upon the rocks. It was the dawn of that day that Cathal, the arch-druid of Iona, looked down from his holy hill where he had been lighting the sacrificial fire to the Sun God, for in those days it was before the Lord had walked the earth; and he saw below him on the beach the figure of a man washed up by the storm and lying as if dead. He hurried to the place and found not only the man, but a wee girl child, and she beside him, playing with the shells and digging her pink toes into the wet sand. The man was not dead, only stupid with the sea-water; and Cathal brought them both to a herdsman's hut and saw that they were fed and cared for.

That night he had a strange vision concerning the child; he dreamed that spirits from heaven descended to watch over her while she slept; and when he was for knowing why they should guard her with celestial care they made this answer:

"Know ye, she is holy and blest above all maidens. For some day it shall come to pass that she shall cradle the King of Love upon her breast and guard the Lord of Creation while He sleeps."

And when the vision broke it was Cathal himself that came and watched beside the herdsman's hut where the child slept. So Doughall Donn was made welcome in Iona for the sake of the child; and the druids gave him a hut and herd of his own and saw to it that neither he nor the child should want for anything.

It was midsummer and the day of Bridget's birth, marking the twenty-first year; and at ring o' day while the dew still clung to the grass Bridget left her father's hut and climbed the holy hill. Of all the dwellers on Iona she alone was let watch the lighting of the sacrificial fire and she alone was let hear the chanting of the druid's hymn to the Sun God. This day she was clad in white with a wreath of the rowan berries on her hair and a girdle of them about her waist; and she looked fair as the flowers of the dawn.

As she climbed the hill the wild creatures came running to her for a caress and the birds hovered above her head or perched on her shoulder. She listened to the chanting of the hymn; she bided till the flames of the fire met and mingled with the shafts of the sun. Then a white bird called from the thicket and she followed. She followed him over the crest of the hill; and behold! when she came out to the other slope, 'twas another country she was seeing!

Here were no longer the green fields and the pastures filled with sheep, or the sea lying beyond. It was a country of sand and hot sun; and the trees and the houses about her were strange. She found herself standing by a well with a strangely fashioned jug in her hand, and her father beside her.

"Bridhe," said he, "ye are a strange lass. Are ye not knowing that the well has not held a drop of water for a fortnight, and did ye think to fill your pitcher now?"

She smiled faintly.

"I was not remembering."

Her father drew her away toward the village that lay beneath them, the village of Bethlehem.

"Bridhe," said he again, "the drouth has been upon us these many months. The wells are empty, even the wine is failing, and the creatures are dying on our hands. I shall leave the inn this night in your care while I take the camels and the water-skins and ride for succor. There is a well, they tell me, in a place they call the Mount of Olives which is never dry; and 'tis a three days' journey or more there and back."

"And what is it that I should be doing, with ye away?" asked Bridget.

They had reached the door of the inn by now, and Doughall Donn opened it for her to pass through.

"Ye are to stay here, birdeen, and keep the door barred against my return. Not a soul is to pass over the threshold while I am gone. Ye are not to open to the knock of man, woman, or child—mind that!"

"But, father, what if some one should come in mortal need—famished with the hunger or faint with the thirst?"

He led her to the rude cupboard and pointed to the nearly empty shelves.

"There is a cruiskeen of ale and a cup o' water, a handful o' dry dates and some oaten cake; that is all of food or drink left in the inn. 'Twill no more than last ye till I return, and if ye fed another ye would starve. So mind the promise I put on ye this night. Ye are to shelter no one in the inn while I am gone."

Bridget watched her father drive the camels out of the courtyard; she barred the door on his going and for two days no foot crossed the threshold of the inn. But on the night of the third day, as Bridget was making ready for bed, she heard the sound of knocking on the door.

"Who is it and what is it ye are wanting this night?" called Bridget from within, keeping the door fast.

"God's blessing on this house!" came in a man's voice out of the dark. "I am Joseph, a carpenter of Arimathea, and this is Mary who is after needing a woman's help this night. She is spent and can go no farther. Will ye give us shelter?"

"That I cannot. The promise is laid on me to give neither food nor shelter to living soul till my father comes hither. Were it not for that 'tis a glad welcome I'd be giving the both of ye."

And then a woman's voice came out of the darkness, a voice that set her breasts to be trembling and her heart to be leaping with joy.

"Are ye forgetting me, Bridhe astore?" said the voice.

Bridget opened the grating in the door and looked out. There she saw a great-shouldered giant of a man, covered with beard, and beside him was a wee gray donkey, and on the donkey rode a woman, who turned her face to Bridget and smiled. And the wonder of that smile drew Bridget's hand to the latch.

She opened the door wide and bade them enter. She laid before them what ale and dates and oaten cake was left, and watched them eat in silence.

Then she beckoned them to the courtyard.

"Yonder is the byre clean with fresh straw; and the creatures are gentle. Half the promise have I broken this night; I have given ye food. But shelter ye must take outside the inn. Come!"

She led the way to the byre and left them there, hurrying back to bar the door of the inn again. But as she was fastening the latch she heard the sound of much travel abroad, and looking out she saw it was her father's camels returning. There was great gladness in her welcome—aye, and there was sadness for the breaking of the promise.

"See," said she, drawing her father in. "I gave them food—only food. They are resting in the byre." But when she went to gather up the dish that had been empty, behold it was filled with dates and oaten cake! And the cruiskeen was filled with ale!

" 'Tis a miracle!" said Bridget, the breath leaving her; and even as she spoke the strange thing happened.

Outside came the sound of falling rain, not gentle as a passing shower, but the steady beat, beat, beat of the rainy season.

"The drouth is broken," said Doughall Donn, adding, with wonder in his voice: "What manner of folk are those yonder? Are ye not minding the prophesy: 'The King of Love, Ruler of the World and All Time, shall be born on the first night of rain following the great drouth; and He shall be born in a byre outside an inn.' Come, let us see!"

He drew Bridget with him across the courtyard, but before ever they entered the byre they saw the holy light and heard singing that was not of this earth. And when they came inside there was Mary upon the hay, and beside her lay a new-born child.

"Aigh! the blessed wee one!" whispered Bridget, kneeling down beside them. "I am thinking ye had better rest, Mary astore; give me the birdeen to nurse while ye sleep." And with hunger-arms she reached out for the Holy Child and wrapped it in the white mantle that she wore.

"Aye, take Him," said Mary. "I would I might, in the years to come, give my babe to every barren breast. But ye, Bridget, are alone blest."

And through the long night Bridget cradled the Child while Mary slept and the kine looked on, kneeling in their stalls. And when day broke, Bridget closed her eyes and slept, too, for the weariness was upon her.

It was the call of a white bird that wakened her. She started up with a cry of fear and her arms reached over her breast for the Child, but the Child was gone. And when she looked about her she saw she was standing on the crest of the holy hill, while beyond her lay green fields and pastures full of sheep, and her father's hut, and the blue bay of Iona at her feet.

" 'Tis all a dream," she said, the wonder on her. And then she looked at the mantle she wore. It was woven with golden threads into marvelous pictures of birds and beasts and angels. And Bridget went slowly down the holy hill, the mantle about her; and when she came to her father's hut she found she had been gone for a year and six months.