In the Carmina Gadelica, Alexander Carmichael writes, “Bríde with her white wand is said to breathe life into the mouth of the dead Winter and to bring him to open his eyes to the tears and the smiles, the sighs and the laughter of Spring.”
The legends and traditions of the goddess and the saint are so intertwined that there may be no way of knowing which elements are pre-Christian and which are not. There is no written record of what came before, and the traditions that carry the namesake of the saint are so rich in Pagan meaning, that I would think it safe to assume (as most Pagans do assume) that their origins are pre-Christian.
The symbolism of the color white is seen again and again- she has a white wand and a white cow (with red ears!)… in Scotland on Bríde’s Feast Day, young girls dressed all in white made a doll out of straw or grain stalks and paraded her through town. They, and the doll, were considered Bríde personified. Modern associations with the color white are with themes of purity and virginity. But did the ancients have these same associations? Some of my Pagan friends are of the opinion that the tradition of wearing white for Imbolc is a patriarchal overlay, that it sends a stifling message to women- that we must be pure and virginal to have spiritual worth.
However, something tells me that the symbolism of white, and especially white combined with red, is too powerful a symbolism to dismiss. I’ve heard it suggested that to the ancients, these colors symbolized male power (white semen) and female power (red menstrual blood), and so mingling these colors was uniting these powers.
Here’s what I think- red and white are both symbols of female/goddess power. Think of the white of mother’s milk, especially relevant at Imbolc- Bríde is the divine midwife. The red is the blood of childbirth and white the milk that nourishes life. Indeed, the older name for the holiday, Oímelc, means sheep’s milk. At St. Brigit’s well in Kildare, water runs through two stone tubes that resemble breasts.
And if you were to go outside and look at the sun at mid-day (don’t- it’s bad for your eyes), you would see that the sun isn’t yellow or orange (the colors we usually think of as sun colors)- the sun is white. The sun is (mostly) personified as female in Celtic cultures. So white and red are also symbolic of the sun and fire.
(Here are some more interesting things about the combination of red and white that have nothing to do with Imbolc… Shaman in some parts of the world wear red and white. Some think that Woden wore these colors and that’s how they became associated with Yule. The fly agaric mushroom is red capped with white spots.)
A third color associated with Imbolc, or rather, with Bríde herself, is the green of her mantle or cloak. This represents the green of Ireland, emphasizing Bríde’s fertility/land goddess aspect. There are many sources, however, that proscribe the colors red, white, and black to Bríde. Alexei Kondratiev calls the triad of red, white and black, “primordial colors”. In his book “Celtic Rituals”, he mentions that the color black is often symbolically associated with the color dark green. This only makes sense if one considers both green and black to be symbolic of chthonic substances; rich earth of varying dark colors. For the other associations of black; darkness, death, etc., would seem to be the antithesis of the goddess Bríde- but not of her dark twin, the Cailleach.