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!
31 thoughts on “Recipes for a Feast of Light: Reviving the Magical Foods of Imbolc”
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!
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.
Inspirational post with great images to accompany it 🙂
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!
Reblogged this on hocuspocus13 and commented:
Thank you so kindly for citing my own academic Indo-European Study of the Festival of Imbolg, as I spell it.
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? 😉
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.
Thank you for sharing this information. I enjoyed learning a little bit about some of the food traditionally eaten during this time.
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. <3
Reblogged this on Living by the Moon.
I love this! I am definitely going to stay tuned.
I enjoy your posts and learn lots about food and forgotten traditions – thank you for sharing!
Thank you for this! I love the stories and forgotten traditions
You’re very welcome! My pleasure.
At the risk of seeming overly critical, I do feel the need to ask for some clarification –
As an ordained High Priestess myself, it has always been my understanding that December 21st is actually Midwinter, the same way that June 21st is Midsummer. I can understand and appreciate how one would see Imbolc as being the midpoint of Winter, which is correct if you are looking at the standard Gregorian calendar that we use today. But if you are going by the Pagan Wheel of the Year, then the solstices and the equinoxes are the midpoints between the seasons, while the cross-quarter festivals of Imbolc, Beltaine, Lughnasadh and Samhain signify the beginning of the season. So as hard as it is to believe during this frigid time, we are actually welcoming Spring at the first of February. By the time Ostara arrives in March, Spring is at its prime, and continues to mature through the month of April, until we arrive at the beginning of Summer which starts on the first day of May, also known as Beltaine.
But nonetheless, I loved your posts, and your ideas for celebrating this Sabbat, and I have shared them with my Facebook friends. Your posts are beautifully written and the photographs are gorgeous. I appreciate that your video has text, it makes it easy for me to understand it since I am Deaf.
Many blessings to you at this time of the returning light.
Yes, you are right of course. I’ve stopped using the term midwinter but have yet to go back to correct all the old posts and videos. When first started writing about these old traditions and recipes there was so much confusion about dates, calendars and names (and still is!) that I used this midwinter term (midpoint between winter and spring) as it is easily grasped by people….While I’m not sure which tradition you are referring to particularly when you say Pagan Wheel of the Year (Gardnerian?) my understanding is that Celtic traditions did not celebrate cross-quarter dates at all and that the beginning of spring, occurred at sundown Feb. 1st. I use this date loosely, obviously, Feb. 1st or Imbolc must have calculated astrologically…I find it hard to believe ancient peoples calculated anything by a calendar on a wall as we do today but used the heavens as their clock! Thank-you for your kind comments, reading these always mean the world to me. 🙂
I did not see your response to my comment of last year until now, when I returned to your site for ideas & recipes for celebrating Imbolc this year. I’d now like to take this opportunity to respond…
Yes, there is a lot of confusion regarding the ancient calendars and reconciling them with the Wheel of the Year, which in reality is a modern-day invention that originated less than one hundred years ago. The Wheel combines two different Pagan concepts regarding yearly festivals: a solar cycle which celebrated the solstices and equinoxes, and a natural fertility cycle which celebrated the four seasonal festivals which were identified with Gaelic names; namely Imbolc, Beltane, Lughnasadh, and Samhain.
I’m a little confused by your statement that “the Celtic traditions did not celebrate cross-quarter dates at all” when in fact the four festivals I name above are in fact the Cross-Quarter Festivals, also known as the Greater Sabbats. These festivals are all mentioned in Celtic mythology, and given Celtic names. It is said that the Celts traditionally did not celebrate the solstices and equinoxes, although this may be up for debate. There is some evidence that the Neolithic people who inhabited Ireland in ancient times may have indeed celebrated these solar occurrences of the year, as witnessed by the alignment of several tombs with the sun – Newgrange being a prime example of such, as well as the Hill of Tara and other sites. However, these people were not Celts, who did not arrive in Ireland until over 2000 years later (contrary to popular belief, the Celts did not originate in Ireland; their ancestral home was actually along the Danube River in Central Europe).
While my own spiritual path is rather eclectic and I do not claim to follow any specific tradition, my practices lean heavily towards the beliefs and customs of Celtic spirituality and the witchcraft of the British Isles (including Ireland). I acknowledge the influence of such well-known Pagan figures as Gerald Gardner, Doreen Valiente, Janet and Stuart Farrar (along with Gavin Bone), Patricia Monaghan, John and Caitlin Matthews and others whose focus was/is on this region.
If you haven’t already, I would encourage you to check out the writings of Ronald Hutton, a British historian who has written extensively about the pre-Christian religion of the British Isles, as well as contemporary Paganism. In particular, his book “The Stations of the Sun” provide some rich reading regarding the Wheel of the Year and the various festivals from which it is derived, and how they were celebrated in the British Isles.
But nonetheless, I still hold true to my earlier claim that this is a beautiful site filled with good information, beautifully illustrated with gorgeous photos. I would have no hesitation about referring my colleagues to Gather Victoria for ideas and recipes for their own Sabbat feasts, and I plan to incorporate some of them into my own celebrations.
I wish you well, and all the best with your continued endeavors.
Goddess Bless and Goddess Keep,
Thank you for your kind comments and for taking the time to do so – I appreciate and learn so much. I actually agree with everything you’ve said so let me try and better explain where I’m coming from. Now I’m certainly not claiming any of this as bona fide fact – just my interpretation borne out of years of pondering & amateur research. I’ve yet to write about this as it is so darn complicated and I’m still sorting out what’s what. So forgive me for horribly oversimplifying.
My personal belief is that the solar and lunar cycles ( lunisolar calendar) marked in the landscape with stoneworks, mounds, megaliths built by the Neolithic people (long before the Celts as you point out) mark the origins of the dates of our modern holidays. While we can’t say these dates were celebrated with feasts/ fertility festivals there is much evidence in folklore (again as you point out) and documented by Christian scribes like Bede which connect these “pagan” or “heathen” holidays to celestial cycles, moon phases, solstices, equinoxes etc.
The Julian Calendar replaced the old Roman calendar which measured the moon in relation to the earth and calculated months by the phases of the moon. The lunar calendar was in wide-spread use across the ancient world and a lunar calendar found at Warren Field in Scotland has been dated to the Mesolithic period.
There is also much evidence that pre-Christian festivals followed lunar calendars. Swedish scholar Andreas Nordberg believes these were held at the time of a new or full moon, and he wrote particularly of the Norse winter nights, Yule, Sigurblot (Eostre) and Midsummer as celebrated the first full moon after solstices and equinoxes. Robert Sass writes in his book the Saxons that Yule was originally a date celebrated after solstice in accordance with the full moon and was moved to the solstice due to Christian persecution. Bede too confirms that for the Anglish the full moon Winterfylleth marked the official start of winter. Plus it looks like the Celts also followed a lunisolar calendar and to me, this suggests we have overemphasised the importance of the solar cycle ( i.e. my comment re: “cross-quarter days)” in our recreations of these ancient holidays and quite forgotten the importance of the moon. And apparently according to the Coligny Calendar (used by the continental Celts before being banned by the Romans), Brigit’s celebration was not only set by the moon – it occurred twice! The full moon was Brigit’s public holiday and the new moon was her “Holy Night”.
That said, there is no denying the importance of the idea of quarters(solstices and equinoxes marking the high point of the season) and cross-quarters( the beginning and end of seasons. The lunisolar calendar found throughout northern European seems to indicate the shift from one to the next originally took place during the first new moon or full moon following the relevant equinoxes, solstices and cross-quarter days.
Modern pagan or Wiccan practice, as you point out is a modern reinvention of these old rituals/rites. But it bothers me that so many of us (myself included) continue to celebrate these old holy days according to the Gregorian/solar calendar. We’re just out of step with those magical moments of power considered so vital to our ancestors.
At any rate, its well documented in folk customs across Europe & Eurasia & beyond, and in the writings of the early Greeks and Romans, that these rituals and feasts were considered vital to the fertility of the land and to the well-being of the people. The Gregorian calendar tied holidays to specific dates irrespective of celestial cycles (except for Easter it seems which still observes the lunisolar cycle.) All this served, I believe, to disconnect people (quite deliberately) from the practices of ancient “earth-based” religion -tied to the cycles of the cosmos, sun, moon, stars and energies of the earth herself. I believe our “heathen” ancestors understood something we are only beginning to remember – the art of being in flow (body and soul) with energies of the cosmos, sun, moon, stars and the energies of the earth herself.
That’s my opinion anyway! If I’ve misunderstood something – I welcome your comments yet again. It’s a constant and amazing journey of discovery!
I’m definitely going to check out The Stations of The Sun, it sounds marvellous. Thank-you.
P.s. A fabulous book I’m currently reading “The Power of Centre” explores the idea that ancient people (including the Celts) were obsessed by the idea of a sacred circle, drawn into quarters, with a power spot at the centre. They believed this design was life-enhancing and used it as a base for settlements and villages – hence the idea of the city centre – usually marked by a sacred spring. The book explores how this design is embedded in the prehistoric stoneworks and earth monuments of the British Isles, the vast majority being dedicated to the Goddess Brigid!
Nice post. Though, there is something missing 🙂
The Chamomile Lemon Custard Tarts actually are egg custard tarts and are traditionally Portuguese.
They are called *Pastéis de Nata or Pastéis de Belém*
The best way to eat them is by going to a Portuguese Cafe/pastry shop (it’s best to get them made by someone who is Portuguese) and add cinnamon on top of the pastries and warm them up for a little bit in the microwave.
This is the traditional way of eating the Pastéis de Nata/Pastéis de Belém
I noticed this wasn’t pointed out before, so I decided to let you know, from experience since I’m Portuguese myself 🙂
Pastéis de Nata/Pastéis de Belém are definitely perfect for Imbolc as well as Ostara.
Oh yes, this recipe was entirely inspired by the classic Portuguese Tart (all those eggs, so golden, so delicious!) but I adapted with other ingredients for an Imbolc twist!
Nice article and beautiful pictures you have there 👍 it definitly makes me want to do something special of Imbolc this year ^^
I hope you are! Happy Imbolc to You!
Enjoyed this article very much. Do not have knowledge of these beliefs and celebrations but am interested. Thanks for the information that you present in such a beautiful way. Blessings on you.
Thank-you and blessings to you!