Happy Imbolc everyone. Also known as Candlemas, Oimelc or the Feast of the Hearth, this day marks the end of winter and the beginning of spring. Winter is over and the first signs of spring are appearing in nature – buds are beginning to appear on trees, animals are waking up from hibernation and early spring flowers like snowdrops and daffodils are beginning to bloom. The day is also known as Oimelc which is Gaelic or “ewe’s milk.” The ewe’s are pregnant now and will be having lambs soon. Milking can begin again, which in ancient times, when food was hard to come by in winter, offered people a lifeline. The sun is getting stronger now and the days are noticeably longer. It is time to celebrate the awakening and rebirth of the earth, as well as new beginnings in our own lives.
It is traditional to celebrate this festival by doing a spring clean of the home (a time of purification), eating spicy or dairy foods and placing candles in all the windows of the home to represent the growing strength of the sun. I like to go for a walk on this day to search for the first signs of spring – especially snowdrops. Imbolc is also a time to create poetry and songs or to make candles for the coming year.
In many cultures, this marked the beginning of the farming and fishing year and is a great time to bless fields, seeds and tools for the coming agricultural season. It is a good time to give offerings to the Earth Mother and to the sea. It is traditionally the time to begin chitting potatoes ready for planting and as many wild foods begin to appear now, such as nettles and dandelions, one can go wild food hunting.
In ancient Celtic times the goddess Brigid was honoured on this day. She was the goddess of fertility, learning, poetry, prophecy, healing, metal-working, arts and crafts. In modern paganism, she is also associated with the home, hearth and fire. Later she was adopted by the Christian church and became St Bride. There are many customs in Gaelic countries which honour her and may date back to the time of the ancient Celts. In Scotland, a cold day on Imbolc meant warmer weather was soon to come. Offerings of milk were made to the earth and porridge to the sea to ensure a good yield of fish and seaweed in the coming year. A bride doll was made of corn and dressed elaborately e.g. with snowdrops and primroses. A bed was made for her and she was invited into the house, while a white birch want was placed alongside the bed to represent the wand she used to make vegetation start growing again. Ashes in the hearth were smoothed and left overnight. In the morning, these were checked for evidence she had visited and if not incense was burned to her. In Ireland, celebrations were similar. Imbolc represented not only the beginning of spring but also the fishing season as the storms of the sea were supposed to have been over by then. While some farmers would turn over a sod of earth in a symbolic act to hurry up warmth, the feast was known as a “holiday from turning” and so any type of turning such as weaving, ploughing and spinning was forbidden out of respect for Bride who it was said had taught women how to spin wool. The house was cleaned thoroughly beforehand and sained. while water brought from a sacred well to sprinkle around the house. A feast on the evening included sowans, apple cake, dumplings, colcannon and most importantly, butter. Later mashed potato with butter and onions was added. A place was laid at the table for Bride and a portion of food left out for her. Items such as ribbons or cloth were left on trees and bushes outside for her to bless and the fire was kept burning with the door open so she could come in and warm herself. Bride’s crosses were made of rushes or straw and hung up for protection. It was also a time of charity and hospitality.
As a vegan, I obviously cannot eat the traditional dairy foods at this time so I will be making a spicy lentil shepherds pie. Just as in nature at this time, there are dormant seeds buried deep and waiting to sprout, so the pie contains a lentil and vegetable base under a layer of beautiful white potatoes. I am using seasonal foods including potatoes, onions, kale, carrots & leeks. The orange of the carrots represents the returning sunlight, while the spices represent fire. Potatoes are also seen as a food sacred to Brigid and mashed potato in often eaten in Gaelic countries at this time. The dish will go very well with a Banana, Coconut and Soya Milk smoothie which I shall have with it to toast Mother Nature.
Gaol Naofa – http://www.gaolnaofa.com/festivals/
Gaelic Folkway – http://gaelicfolkway.webs.com/feiseannaomh.htm