I love the ancient feast days that once celebrated the turn of the “wheel of the year”. Marking celestial alignments such as solstices, equinoxes, and cross-quarter days, they followed the old wisdom of “as above, so below”, meaning these ‘holy days’ offered moments of propitious timing during which life-enhancing magic can be worked. And still can!
Take the upcoming old Celtic holiday Imbolc one of my personal favorites. The first recipes I ever created for Gather were in honor of the beautiful Celtic spring “feis” (feast or festival) known as Imbolc, Imbolg, or Brigid’s Feast of Fire – and it was celebrated long before St. Brigids Day was fixed to Feb.1st on the Gregorian calendar.
For the Celts, this onset of spring fell on the cross-quarter day (the midpoint between the winter solstice and spring equinox) and was personified in the form of the goddess Brigid (Brigit, Brighid, Bride, Bridget, Bridgit, Bríde) who descends to earth in her maiden form as the sun. This moving feast shifts each year according to to celestial alignments and this year it falls on February 4th. A timing that is marked on earth by a shaft of light that illuminates the megalithic chambers of the Irish Hill of Tara (and many others) on the days just before, during, and after, the cross-quarter day.
Spreading her green cloak across the land, Brigid revives the earth from her winter slumber. And in a time when food stores began to run thin, the first appearance of her swelling buds and green shoots was a time to celebrate the return of the season of plenty.
To ensure fertility and abundance in the coming spring, bonfires were set, blazing hearths and candles were lit to strengthen her powers, feasting on all kinds of bread, cakes, custard pies, cheeses, and libations made with ingredients associated with the powers of the sun (such as egg yolk, cream, fresh cheese, butter, and honey) ensured Brigid’s blessing of fertility, health, and abundance to the land, animals and the people.
Today a decade later, I remain utterly enchanted by the sacred foods which once graced Brigid’s Feasting Table. Over the years I’ve baked seeded cakes, braided bread, oat bannocks, and barley pies, I’ve fried golden pancakes, made fresh cheeses, savory soups, and side dishes, and concocted creamy libations, all inspired by the “Bright” or “Exalted” one and her Feast of Light. Whether we’re talking creamy dairy and rich butter, toasty oats and barley, honey, eggs, wild berries, wild greens, or aromatic sun herbs – not mention a splash of red ale and a wee bit of whiskey, each year my appreciation for Irish cuisine deepens!
So here is my round-up of some of the most magical foods of Imbolc – with links to some of my favorite recipes.
Let’s begin with dairy, called bánbhia, white food or white meats, which were the mainstay of the Irish diet before the potato arrived in the sixteenth century. Consumed fresh, cultured into buttermilk cream, curds, cheese, and butter, bánbhia are some of the most important foods for the Imbolc feast.
The word Imbolc is said to derive from the Old Irish Imbolg meaning in the belly, a time when pregnant ewes began to provide the first of the seasons’ milk, known as “Oilmec” or “new milk”. Symbolizing purity, rebirth, and renewal, this first milk was offered to Brigid by pouring it upon the earth, nourishing, purifying, and preparing for the new life to come. And it was made into special cheeses and featured in milk dishes and drinks for the feast.
Butter was another important ritual food. According to Kevin Danaher, in The Year in Ireland, butter served on Brigid’s Feast Day had to be churned on the same day. This may have been because, according to this wonderful source 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). See more on the Bridey Doll here. In some areas, an effigy of Brigit was actually made out of a butter churn handle and taken from house to house.
Bees and honey were sacred to Brigid. Honey was golden and filled with the power of the sun, and was always included with fresh bread and butter on the Imbolc table. Seeded cakes, bread and buns were also on the Imbolc menu as seeds symbolized the growth of new life. During Imbolc, ancient grains such as oats and barley (grown in Ireland since the Neolithic) were made into round bread, cakes, and desserts, which often featured sacred foods such as butter, milk, and eggs baked inside, such as the recipes below.
The Bonnach Bride (in Ireland) or Bannock of Bride (in Scotland) was a kind of unleavened oatcake left out Imbolc Eve as an offering to Brigid and to gain her blessings of fertility, prosperity, and good health. Bannocks were also eaten in the fields so that a piece could be thrown over the shoulder to honor Brigid and nourish the land.
It was also common to save the last piece in a cupboard to ensure there would be enough flour to last out the year. And it was possible to avert any bad omens or bad luck by serving the cake with plenty of butter to your guests ‘without the asking.”
Pancakes were another common food eaten because they were round and golden as 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.
Pancakes and crepes are also an official food of the Christian Feast of St. Brigid, a fantastically popular figure in the middle ages. During Candlemas Feb.2nd a“mass” of candles is held – hence the name Candlemas. Much of Brigid’s mythology (and her pancakes) was absorbed into St. Brigid. As the patron saint of the dairy St. Brigid wanders the land Imbolc Eve, blessing houses and barns and creating countless “food miracles”. St. Brigid turns water into ale and stones into salt; cows give double their usual yield, dairy churnings are increased to fill many vessels with butter, one sack of malt makes eighteen vats of ale, and the bread supply is always sufficient for guests.
It is interesting these foods (ale, bread, cakes, milk etc.) were once long-standing offerings to the great goddesses of antiquity (and pre-antiquity). So do these food miracles link St. Brigit with a mother goddess of plenty and fertility? According to Kerry Noonan, author of “Got Milk?: The Food Miracles of St. Brigid of Kildare”, St, Brigid is an “embodiment of the supernatural cauldron of plenty, a common motif in Celtic literature and legend.” Fascinating!
St. Brigid was believed to be a healer and teacher of ‘herbcraft” so many plants and flowers sacred to her and the sun (such as sage, heather, chamomile, bay and rosemary) have become part of the Imbolc Feast. Each has its own magical purpose, rosemary, and sage, for example, brought their powers of purification and cleansing, so ritually important at this time of new beginnings. Heather brought good luck and healing.
It’s also probable that the new greens and early spring herbs were also part of Brigid’s Feast. Wild garlic has been used as a herb since the days of the Celts. And according to this amazing book, nettles, chickweed, burdock, sheep sorrel, wood sorrel, yarrow, wild mustards, and winter cress were common potherbs consumed in the UK in spring pottages and stews. This hearty wild onion soup (pictured below) is inspired by Brotchan Foltchep considered the most traditional of all Irish soups and the key element was usually oatmeal. Foltchep is a word for leeks but before they were cultivated wild leeks and wild onions were used -so my version is inspired by our local version of wild onion – Allium vineale.
In the late 16th century (when the potato first arrived in Ireland) a dish called Colcannon made of mashed potato, cabbage, herbs, greens, butter, and wild onion was added to the list of now traditional Imbolc dishes. And it was customary for the whole family to be involved in the mashing!
Dandelion is another plant associated with Imbolc. In Gaelic Irish, dandelion is called lus Bhríd (Brigid’s plant) or Bearnán Bríd (indented one of Brigid) where “lus” is the Irish equivalent of the English “wort,” or “plant.” She was also known as the Flame of Brigid, no doubt due to her sun-like corona of golden flowers.
Bridgets Dandelion Spirals, see recipe here.
Blackberries were sacred to Brigid and used in both protection and prosperity magic, and luckily I had loads in the freezer. Back in the day, they were probably used dried or infused in spirits to preserve them.
Saint Brigid is said to have founded the famed monastery in Ireland called Kildare. Kildare, or Cill Dara, means ‘Church of the Oaks suggesting it was once a pre-Christian sanctuary. Legend tells that in ancient times Brigid’s eternal flame was once tended by 19 priestesses and dedicated to women’s mysteries, forbidden to men. In the middle ages, the churchman Gerald of Wales visited Kildare and wrote “the nuns and holy women have so carefully and diligently kept and fed it with enough material, that through all the years from the time of the virgin saint, it has never been extinguished.2”
Today whether it’s in honor of the old Goddess or the Saint ( or some combination of both!) women in Ireland, Scotland and Wales, still light candles in their windows so that Brigid can find her way to their door and prepare her sacred foods on Imbolc Eve. They set a place at the table for Brigid and place an oatcake on the doorstep in thanksgiving for the plenteous crop and good luck during the following year.
I cannot tell you how much these old food customs delight me. While I have no Irish blood (of which I am aware) the Celts migrated from France (particularly Brittany) home to many of my ancestors. I’m deeply inspired by the rolling green hills, rocky outcroppings, and mild moist climate of Vancouver Island -which share many similarities to the island of Ireland. So while the rest of Canada may be buried under snow here, as in Ireland, the first shimmering of new life and spring appears just in time for Imbolc.
The idea of food magic may seem strange, but for our ancestors, it was an act of faith in blessings to come. That’s what I love about these old-world rituals. In sympathetic magic “like begets like” so fires create warmth, light increases light, golden round pancakes bring on the sun and feasting begets more feasting! A cause for culinary celebration indeed!
So here’s to the coming of the light. Raise a toast to the sun, bake a golden cake, and welcome the arrival of the Goddess of Spring! Then sit back and enjoy – let your blessings roll in!