Every year, around this time, I start seeing a flood of posts and pages on the internet posting about what food to eat and make for Imbolc. What are traditional Imbolc foods? What should we be making that is appropriate and traditional for Imbolc? Along with recipes and the links between Brigid and this food. And a lot of it is pure bull shit. Now, to be clear, I’m coming at this from an Irish Brigid perspective, as always. But there’s a load of dubious information around the place that we need to clarify. So here’s a list on commonalities I see permeating these posts:
- Brigid as sun deity. Now, you might, might I say, have a case for this in Scotland. They tell the legend of the Cailleach ruling the winter and Brigid the summer there. Brigid being released or rescued or escaping is One of the signs of spring and the returning of the sun. But this isn’t the case in Ireland. There might again be an extremely loose, dodgy link between Brigid and the sun. I mean, the sun is a great big fiery ball, but this isn’t something that happens in Irish lore. Irish deities just plain aren’t set up that way, to be the “Deity of X”. There are things we can connect them to, because of the lore and the stories, but we wouldn’t refer to them as the deity of X. And this rules out a lot of what follows through this type of post.
- The absolute lack of differentiation between Irish and Scottish practices and beliefs. Seriously – there’s a reason I specify it’s Irish Brigid I follow. Because I know the beliefs, the lore, the practices are different in Ireland and Scotland. There’s some overlap, sure. The countries are close enough that fluent speakers of Irish and Gaelic can make themselves understood enough to hold a conversation. But that doesn’t mean the beliefs and practices are the same. It is irresponsible at best to smush them together like this.
- Brigid as maiden. Or being part of the maiden/mother/crone trio. Again. Not the way triple deities work in Ireland. We have no tradition of this at all in our lore. Seriously. There will be a future blog post coming on this soon and why I find the whole construct of MMC so problematic. But please – read our lore. Examine how both our traditions and our modern practices look at women. Just, please…
- Associating colours with Brigid. I have a lot of UPG around the colours I associate with Brigid, built up over my years of practice. But, the important word (well ok, it’s an acronym) is UPG. It is unverified, it is personal. There’s really nothing in the lore associating Brigid with colours. Ditto with shapes, just FYI. As far as I’m aware, there is nothing in our lore telling me Brigid is happier with round over any other type of shape. I mean, she’s a blacksmith as well as anything else!
- Linking Imbolc with Candlemas. Candlemas is a short name for the Feast of the Presentation of Our Lord. Or the Feast for the Purification of Mary. There’s a Catholic website that gives a good explanation here of the feast. Basically, it’s explained to Catholics, or at least to this one, that after 40 days the first born of any Jewish family had to be presented to the temple and the mother had to visit to be purified after childbirth. There’s a much better explanation, complete with Bible references, in the link above. Now, there is a link in Irish lore between Brigid and Mary. Aside from the way Brigid is called “the Mary of the Gael”, there is a story about Brigid drawing crowds away from Mary and the Holy family as they escaped Herod’s persecution and massacre to Egypt. In this way, Brigid earned the right to precede Mary after that. This means her feast day, 1st Feb comes before Mary’s feast day, 2nd Feb in the Catholic calendar. Can I buggery find a link to that story right now though! But back to my problem with linking Imbolc with Candlemas. They are beside each other in the calendar. Although at least one entry in Duchas equates St. Brigid’s Day with 2nd February rather than the first. However, the blessing of the candles has nothing to do with Brigid. And calling Brigid the Goddess of Light or the Goddess of Illumination makes me feel dodgy. You know – I’ll make a full blog post on this on as well. There’s just too much!
- The lack of valid information on what foods can be used at this time in Ireland traditionally. Pancakes in Ireland are traditionally associated with Shrove Tuesday, not Imbolc. They are made from eggs, milk, butter and fat all of which were on the list of “abstain from” foods for Lent. Now, I have no problems with pancakes being used as foods for Imbolc celebrations. They’re wonderful food, can be savoury, sweet, sized as you choose….wonderful things. As long as we’re talking about the crepe style pancake more popular in Ireland certainly and not the American breakfast pancake, which is far less versatile in my opinion, but possibly better for eating on the go. But what bugs me about these posts really is they take no notice of what foods might traditionally be available in early February in Ireland, but make it seem like the foods they are suggesting would have been easily available. I have no problem with including seeds in your Imbolc feast – wonderful symbolism in my opinion. Our ancestors wouldn’t have traditionally eaten seeds in Ireland. I mean modern Ireland has seeds, go into any health food store and you’ll find them. But go back a few generations, and it was the desperate who ate their seedstock. It left you nothing to sow for the coming year. Don’t worry, I have a list coming below for this one!
- Spuds. Potatoes. No.The English coloniers brought the spud to Ireland , “credited” to Sir Walter Raleigh. Jon O’ Sullivan has a great exploration of the role of the spud in Irish history here. Now, spuds are such a staple in Ireland that until very recently, a meal couldn’t be considered a dinner without some potatoes being served along with it. Like within my lifetime. I’ve never seen my Dad take so much interest or concern over what or how my mother cooked as the first time she made lasagne. It was in the late 80’s for reference. If you are going to force a nation to depend on one food for nutrition, the spud isn’t a bad choice. Add in dairy for fats, required for health, and you have a fairly decent nutritional intake. But using spuds to celebrate a deity in Ireland… it leaves a bad taste in the mouth. Pun sort of intended.
- An overwhelming dependency on the Oimelc origin story for Imbolc. Now, I can’t argue too much with this one, since it at least brings dairy into the picture, but really, drinking ewe’s milk is and has been fairly rare in Ireland. I remember asking my Grandad about this once as a child – his reaction was not positive and was along the lines of “we’re not that desperate”. Milk and dairy in ireland were and still are, predominantly, almost exclusively bovine in nature. But there are very strong links between Brigid and dairy/cows, whether it’s the saint or the deity you’re looking at. So I won’t argue too much with this one, even if it’s taking a convoluted way to reach a destination.
So after all that, what would I suggest? Well here’s a few thoughts.
- Dairy. Brigid is heavily associated with dairy foods – butter, cream, cheese, milk. Think of all the stories in the hagiographies of her making one churn of butter supply twice the butter it should have – usually because she had given the first half away to the less well off.
- Lamb, Mutton, Beef, Bacon, Pork. Lebor Gabala Érenn explicitly links Brigid to ox, boar and ram. There are traditional Irish recipes for all of this – just remember, an Irish rasher bears very little resemblance to the US/Canadian bacon slices other than they come from the same animal. Allegedly…
- Foods that are in season in Ireland in late January/February. Leek, Celeriac, Parsnip, Kale, Swede, Purple sprouting broccoli, Beetroot, Winter cabbage, Mushrooms, Turnip, Thyme, Parsley, Lettuce, Cauliflower, Brussels Sprouts, Carrot. From storage: spuds, apples, onion. Check out the Bord Bia website, it’s wonderful!
- Ancient Irish foods. In general, our ancestors had a wide variety of food to eat in this country. Seriously – cereals like oats and barley, made into porridge and bread. Wild and domesticated meat – although this always depends on wealth. (As it does today.) “Birds, wild boar and goats, deer and even hedgehogs were commonly eaten“. Fish. Nuts- if you’ve read Irish lore, you know hazelnuts feature prominently, but there are other nuts about. Seaweed – although considered a food of the less well off and since the famine consumption has dropped significantly. Rumour has it, consumption is increasing again though.
- Spiritually or ritually significant foods. I know I said earlier seeds weren’t eaten in Ireland traditionally – and I stand by that. But I do appreciate the symbolism of seeds at Imbolc – I’d just prefer to see people planting them than eating them ritually speaking. Make the special cake. Try out the fancy recipe. You’re welcoming a deity into your home, it’s worth the effort. Just remember to differentiate the items you include because they are special food stuffs versus the food you include because it is linked to Brigid.
There’s a massive variety of food in this country and we are immensely lucky that with the mild climate we have, we can grow food all year round. So fresh fruit and veg are possible most of the year. With planning and preparation of course. And in modern times we have supermarkets, so y’know – that helps. And if you really love some of the recipes that the “Imbolc Food Blogs” describe – go ahead. Use them. But try and delineate for yourself at least the food you are eating to bring you closer to your ancestors (physical, spiritual or other) and the food you are eating cos it tastes good and Imbolc is an excuse for a party. I don’t have problems with the food that’s recommended, as such. It’s the convoluted routes people take to say this particular recipe is ancient or spiritual or connected directly with Brigid.