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, 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.
Take the upcoming old Celtic holiday Imbolc, one of my personal favourites. Commonly celebrated on February 1st it fell, according to the old astronomical calendar, on the night of the new moon, somewhere between the 2nd and 7th of February. This cross-quarter day marked the midpoint between the winter solstice and spring equinox, the moment when the wheel of the year turns from the dark into the light half of the year.
For the Celts, this onset of spring was personified in the form of the goddess Brigid (Brigit, Brighid, Bride, Bridget, Bridgit, Bríde). Goddess of Light and Illumination (amongst many things!) Brigid descends to earth in her maiden form as the sun. A date that is marked on earth by a shaft of light which illuminates the megalithic chambers of the Irish Hill of Tara at dawn.
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 were a promise of the return of the season of plenty.
So to ensure fertility and abundance in the coming spring, offerings were made for Brigid. Bonfires were set, blazing hearths and candles were lit to strengthen her powers, and bread, cakes, custard pies, cheeses and drink made with magical ingredients associated with the sun (such as egg yolk, butter and honey) were served for the Imbolc Feast.
The word Imbolc is said to derive from the Old Irish Imbolg meaning in the belly, and placing the first seed in the belly of the earth was a significant moment in an agricultural community. This was also when the pregnant sheep began to lactate providing 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.
Bread and cakes also played a large role in Imbolc’s food magic. 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 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 honour 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.”
Bannock features in a legend involving St. Brigid who magically multiplied bannock to feed Mary and Joseph during the birth of Jesus. A likely attempt by the Church to replace well-worn heathen practices with an appropriately revised story.
But old habits die hard. In many regions of Ireland, Scotland and Wales the Bonnach Bride is still made on Imbolc Day and given out to girls who carry the Bridey Doll (an effigy of the goddess) through the village going house to house – bringing Brigid’s fertility and blessings to all!
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. Hundreds of churches and holy wells named after her, not only in Celtic lands but across France, Germany and many other parts of Europe. She is at the centre of Candlemas also falling on Feb. 1st. During this “mass” of candles – her illuminating flames were blessed in Church – hence the name Candlemas.
Because the invading Romans never managed to fully colonize Ireland, Brigid is one of the few ancient goddesses whose worship survived the onset of Christianity. Much of her mythology (and her pancakes) were absorbed into St. Brigid who wanders the land Imbolc Eve, blessing house and barn 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”, 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, violets, rosemary) have become part of the Imbolc Feast. Each has 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.
It’s also probable that the new greens and early spring herbs were also part of the Brigid’s Feast. Wild garlic has been used as a herb since the days of the Celts. And according to this 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.
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.28
Blackberries were sacred to Brigid 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.
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.
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 honour 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 grain-crop and good luck during the following year.
Today 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” 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 Goddess of Spring! Then sit back and enjoy – let your blessings roll in!