I love the ancient feast days that once celebrated 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.
Which is why Jennifer and I are once again busy in the kitchen. We’re preparing to celebrate one the oldest and most magical days of the Celtic calendar – the upcoming Festival of Light, known to Celts as Imbolc or Brigid’s Feast Day. This cross-quarter days fall at the midpoint between winter solstice and spring equinox when megalithic chambers marked the light of the rising sun on this day.
Celebrated across Ireland, Britain and Scotland, it was during Imbolc that the Celts welcomed the onset of spring in the form of their goddess Brigid (Brigit, Brighid, Bride, Bridget, Bridgit, Bríd) who took form 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.
Because the long arm of the invading Romans never managed to colonize Ireland, Brigid is one of the few goddesses whose worship survived the onset of Christianity. And although she was absorbed as St. Brigid and her feast day as the religious festival of Candlemas, many of her more “pagan” food rituals are still observed today.
According to this interesting source, women would make a feast for the eve of the festival and a place was always set at the table for Brigid. Afterwards “A sheaf of corn and an oaten cake used to be placed on the doorstep on St Brigid’s Eve for the ‘wee’ folk (fairies) and also as a thanksgiving for the plenteous grain-crop and for good luck during the following year.”
According to Kerry Noonan, author of “Got Milk?: The Food Miracles of St. Brigid of Kildare”, Brigid herself seems to be an “embodiment of a supernatural cauldron of plenty, a common motif in Celtic literature and legend…and in the Irish folk traditions surrounding her February 1st feast day, she wanders the land the night before, blessing house and barn.” Brigid not only distributed food to the needy, but created “miraculous solutions to common household problems, such as the feeding of unexpected guests, the replacement of lost stores, the care of cows and other food animals, and the successful production of dairy products.”
Under her supervision cows give more than 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. In some areas, an effigy of Brigit is made out of a butter churn handle and taken from house to house. Kevin Danaher, in The Year in Ireland, states that on this feast day “butter always formed part of the meal and fresh butter was sure to be churned on the same day.
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.
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) In some areas, the Bridey doll was made out of a butter churn handle and taken from house to house. Kevin Danaher, in The Year in Ireland, states that Brigid’s Feast day “butter always formed part of the meal and fresh butter was sure to be churned on the same day.
By the late 16th century (when the potato first arrived in Ireland) a dish called Colcannon made of mashed potato, cabbage, butter and onion), joined the list of now traditional Imbolc dishes. And it was customary for the whole family to be involved in the mashing.28
Another important food ritual involved the Bonnach Bride or Bannock of Bride (an oatcake made with fruits and nuts). These cakes or “bannocks” were made to attract health and prosperity for the coming year, and on Imbolc day mothers gave out these bannocks to girls who carried the Bridey Doll through the village going house to house. 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.
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.
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.
These are only a few of the foods and culinary traditions of Imbolc passed down to us through folklore – ones 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. 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!
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!