Midwinter Feast of Light: Reviving the Magical Foods of Imbolc

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Gather’s Midwinter Celebration, 2014

I love the ancient feast days of the pagan calendar. Celebrating the turn of the “great wheel of the year” through the solstices, equinoxes and cross quarter days, these “holy days” are the origin of most of our modern holidays. And no matter what ancestral culture you descend from, it’s a pretty safe bet that most of your beloved holiday foods were once “holy foods”, ritually prepared and consumed to bring fertility, good harvest and prosperity to the land.

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Which is why Jennifer and I are once again busy in the kitchen. We’re preparing to celebrate one the oldest and most magical holy days of the ancient calendar- the upcoming Midwinter Festival of Light. Falling at the midpoint between winter solstice and spring equinox, it can be dated as far back as the Neolithic when megalithic chambers marked the light of the rising sun on this day.

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Celebrated across Ireland, Britain and Scotland and Old Europe, it was known to the Celts as Imbolc,  who welcomed the onset of spring in the form of their goddess Brigid (Brigit, Brighid, Bride, Bridget, Bridgit, Bríd) who was known as the maiden of the sun. She revived the landscape from its winter slumber so that the agricultural year could begin. And in a time when winter cupboards began to run thin, the first appearance of her swelling buds and green shoots, were a promise of the return of the season of plenty.

I’m fascinated that Brigid is one of the few goddesses whose worship survived the onset of Christianity (although she was absorbed as St. Brigid and the religious festival of Candlemas). Many of her rites and food rituals are still observed today. This is likely due to the fact that the long arm of the invading Romans never managed to colonize Ireland.

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Brigid as depicted in a traditional Bridey Doll

All forms of light, heat and illumination were sacred to Brigid so it’s no wonder that Imbolc was marked with bonfires, blazing hearths, lit candles and a feast of sacred foods symbolizing the power of the sun. This was a high time for magic, for ritually burning off and releasing the old year and nourishing the new.

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Gather’s Imbolc Altar & Cake, 2014

Today we might say these ancient people were practicing a kind of “sympathetic magic”, the belief that through intention, in harmony with the seasonal powers of nature, they could create an energy of blessing for themselves, their families and their community.  And their ceremonial rituals of preparing and offering food were no exception.

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Jacopo da Ponte, Sheep and Lamb.

This was a time when the ewes began to birth, lactating the “new milk” or “Oilmec” which was sacred to the Celts. During Imbolc it was customary to offer this milk to Brigid by pouring it onto the earth to assist the return of fertility to the land. And it was also made into special cheese and baked into breads, cakes, and pies, along with other magical ingredients associated with the sun (such as egg yolks and honey) for the Imbolc feast.

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Sheep Cheese

Another centrepiece of Imbolc food was butter because (according to this wonderful compendium of Imbolc folklore and history) the churning of butter with a dash (a staff or plunger) was necessary for the fertilization of the brídeóg (a doll or effigy of Brigid) so central to Imbolc fertility customs. (See more on the Bridey Doll here)

Another important food ritual was the making of the Bonnach Bride or Bannock of Bride (an oatcake made with fruits and nuts). On the eve of St Brìde’s day it was customary for mothers to give out gifts of bannocks, along with cheese or butter to the girls who visited each house with the Brìde’s doll. The Bonnach Bride was also eaten in the fields so that a piece could be thrown over the shoulder to honour Brigid and nourish the land.

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Bannock -image from Yummly.com

Pancakes were eaten because, round and golden, they resembled the sun. This promised an abundant harvest of wheat and saving the last pancake in the cupboard ensured there would be enough flour to last out the year. Wishes were made while flipping a pancake in the air and trinkets were also placed into pancake batter as a way to divine one’s future prospects for the forthcoming year.

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Brigid was believed to be a teacher of ‘herbcraft” and so many plants and flowers sacred to her, such as sage, heather, violets, rosemary and blackberry were often featured in Imbolc foods. Each came with their own magical purpose, rosemary and sage for example, brought their powers of purification and cleansing, so ritually important at this time of new beginnings.

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Sage

These are only a few of the foods and culinary traditions of Imbolc passed down to us through folklore – ones that we’ll be reviving once again at our own Midwinter celebration. As per tradition, we’ll craft Brigid crosses or sun wheels (which are hung on the door to invite Brigid’s blessings into our home) weave floral fertility crowns, and light an altar of burning candles in her honour.

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Then we’ll be serving up some Imbolc magic in dishes like sheep cheese, braided breads, herb and honey butters, and creamy tarts and savoury pies. There might even be a pancake “cake”so that we can enjoy a little old fashioned divination!

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We’ll also add a touch of the wild by featuring the new fresh greens and herbs that appear in early spring. Wild garlic has been used as an herb with fish and to flavour soups, stews, potato dishes and in salads since the days of the Celts. And according to this book, nettles, chickweed, burdock, sheep sorrel, wood sorrel, yarrow, wild mustards and winter cress was consumed in the UK in spring pottages and stews. And of course dandelion greens (a plant sacred to Brigid) have been eaten since ancient times.

So please join us as we celebrate some old world food magic at the Midwinter Feast of Lights. We’ll raise a toast to the bride of new beginnings and partake in some of the magical foods of spring. We hope you can make it – and if not click here, for a little inspiration for your own feast and celebration. And for those interested in attending our Imbolc event, tickets can be purchased here. Happy Imbolc!

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15 Comments Add yours

  1. Andrew Davis says:

    This is Beautiful! Would you also have a similar article (if it’s not too much to ask), for Midsummer – Lughnasadh (?), as this is what we are approaching, in the Southern Hemisphere!

    Like

  2. Claudia says:

    Absolutely everything here looks so delicious! Wonderful to know how you got inspired by folklore – I love doing that here in Germany. Your work is amazing and I´m always looking forward to new posts from you.

    Like

  3. Inspirational post with great images to accompany it 🙂

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  4. Dana Corby says:

    We’ve planned leg of lamb, Irish soda bread with best butter, & spring greens. But I hadn’t thought of ” special cheese… baked into breads, cakes, and pies, along with other magical ingredients associated with the sun (such as egg yolks and honey)” — which sounds like cheesecake to me!

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  5. hocuspocus13 says:

    Reblogged this on hocuspocus13 and commented:
    jinxx⛄xoxo

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  6. Thank you so kindly for citing my own academic Indo-European Study of the Festival of Imbolg, as I spell it.

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  7. jazzfeathers says:

    Fantastic! I think it’s wonderful that we still honor some of the old believes with the food we eat. I’ve never thought about magic in the food, but you are sure right. Like stories, this is something that survived time and came to us from our ancestors.

    Don’t you find it cool that what came to us from the ancestors is all pleasant stuff? 😉

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  8. Reblogged this on Lets Live Local and commented:
    Not long now! We love the magical celebration of Imbolc and the promise of the season to come.

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  9. Thank you for sharing this information. I enjoyed learning a little bit about some of the food traditionally eaten during this time.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Reblogged this on Baubles & Blessings and commented:
    What a wonderful post! Wishing a merry and blessed Imbolc to all celebrating this week (since the date may change, depending on whom you ask). Personally, we are celebrating “Imbolc Week” because we have lots of plans for this holiday — but, realistically, with limited energy and chronic illness/pain, we often end up disappointed when we can’t do holidays on holidays. We’re working on adapting and creating new traditions for ourselves and plan to share as we go. Feel free to do the same below. ❤

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  11. kayla says:

    Reblogged this on Living by the Moon.

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  12. bitchinkitch says:

    I love this! I am definitely going to stay tuned.

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  13. I enjoy your posts and learn lots about food and forgotten traditions – thank you for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

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