When reflecting on the celebrations and foods of midwinter, of course, my mind turns to Twelfth Night and King Cake, that sparkly, sweet, celebratory crown that sets off the season of Carnival around the world. But when Twelfth Night came around this year, all I could bring myself to do was gratefully take down the Christmas tree and the greenery- relieved to be back in ordinary time after two weeks of feasting, travel, houseguests, Glögg, eggnog, cake, cookies, fireworks and hot dice.
Christmas and New Years were beautiful, to be sure. But by New Year’s Day, my sights were clearly set on my dreams and visions for the new year: working on my book, expanding my Tarot practice, launching a new series of classes around the country, getting my money right and my mind clear and my body strong. And, oh yeah, dismantling patriarchy and white supremacy. My body craved rest and solitude. My mind craved structure and diligence. My spirit craved stillness and introspection.
The holy day of Imbolc seemed more fitting to these sensibilities.
Imbolc, later known as Candlemas and the Feast of Saint Brigid (and yes, Groundhog Day), takes place on February 1st and/or 2nd, and represents the midpoint between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox. Imbolc is the hope of spring in the dead of winter. Imbolc is the celebration of the birthing of lambs and their mother’s new milk, it is the first stirring of the bulbs in the earth, imperceptibly preparing to bloom. Like all the High Holy Days on the wheel of the year, the theme of Imbolc is light: in this case, the light has returned and is gaining strength. This is the time when the stores of food may be dwindling, but the hope of spring is around the corner.
Imbolc usually comes on the heels of the new moon in Capricorn, that first potent new moon of the new year (this year it falls on January 16th). Capricorn is practical and hardworking. Capricorn is the billy goat finding sustenance in the barren earth. Capricorn is perseverance. And today, with no fewer than 6 planets in Capricorn (Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Saturn, and Pluto) that rugged and resilient signature is multiplied and amplified.
As I was researching Imbolc and midwinter food traditions, I came across this blog post where I wrote these words exactly 10 years ago to the day:
“…the new moon in january. its a powerful thing. the new moon is the time to plant seeds of intention that you want to grow in the coming cycle (think: farmers almanac, but with ideas and feelings instead of actual plants). So I put some stuff out there, especially the dream of finding a space in town for my bakery. The cool thing about the new year new moon is that you are effecting many cycles: the short-term lunar cycle (ie, your seeds bear fruit at the full moon), but also the 6-month cycle (when the moon is new again in the same sign, in this case, capricorn) and in addition, you are planting seeds for the whole new year.”
How sweet to get a glimpse of a past version of myself, working out the astrology and astronomy (even if incorrectly: that 6-month cycle I referenced would culminate in the full moon in Capricorn, not the new). The me that was home with a 2-year old, fervently wishing to find a room of my own in which to bake. That me that was just learning how to do magic, how to plant seeds, how to try to grow my life in alignment with my soul’s calling. How sweet to remember that I did find a space that year, even though I was scared. How sweet to remember the joy and excitement of that time, and also the times I’ve failed and faltered. How sweet to remember that there is always the grace of new beginnings, new cycles and new seasons. This is the gift of growing older: knowing that because and in spite of everything that came before, I’m still here, maybe more whole than ever.
So this year, in the spirit of Capricorn and Imbolc, of perseverance and intention, I baked what is essentially the opposite of King Cake: Scottish oatcakes. Oatcakes are simple, hearty flatbread: peasant food, winter food. Oatcakes have been eaten in Scotland since at least the first century CE. Like hardtack, hoecakes, and cornpone, oatcakes are a nourishing staple that can be carried lightly over long distances, or mixed and baked on the trail or at sea.
Oatcakes are sacred to the Celtic goddess Brigid, whose feast is celebrated at Imbolc.
Ritual is how we make our inner lives manifest in the material realm, how we find sacrament in our everyday. A recipe is a ritual, too. A recipe is a spell, a prayer: for sustenance, for levity, for strength on the journey. And though these oatcakes may be a bit thick and not altogether toothsome, they are a midwinter prayer, a sacrament to perseverance and intention.
At Imbolc, everything is round and in a circle, like the sun. Oatcakes are lean food, warrior food, good food for setting our sights on the work ahead and setting one foot in front of the other, together, with the promise of spring in our hearts. And whether it’s Scottish oatcakes, a chocolate waffle, or simply a candle attentively lit, I invite you to celebrate Imbolc by planting seeds of intentions for the New Year, seeds of hopefulness; seeds of resilience and perseverance for the good work ahead.
(adapted and modified from Felicity Cloake’s very excellent piece in The Guardian. Definitely check it out for a thorough breakdown of the history, composition, and variations of traditional Scottish oatcakes)
2 1/4 cups “medium oatmeal” (this is a dry meal made of coarsely ground steel-cut oats)
1/2 cup pinhead oats
1/4 cup old-fashioned rolled oats
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon brown sugar
3 tablespoons salted butter
1/3 cup boiling water
Directions: spread the pinhead oats and rolled oats on a dry skillet and toast on medium heat for 10 minutes or until fragrant. Combine in a bowl with 2 cups of medium oatmeal, the salt and the sugar.
Boil water, and pour 1/3 cup boiling water over the butter, whisk until butter is melted and mixture is slightly cooled, then add and whisk in egg.
Add wet ingredients to dry and knead into a ball with your hands. Turn onto a surface “floured” with the remaining medium oatmeal.
Roll to about 1/4″ thick (I think mine could have stood to be a little thinner) and cut into rounds with a biscuit cutter.
Bake for 10 minutes each side on a dry griddle over medium heat.
Remove and let cool.
Store in an airtight container at room temperature. Enjoy with butter, jam, peanut butter, and a strong cup of tea. But don’t dawdle: you’ve got work to do.