I have been meaning to post this for a month now, but we have had SO much life happen the last 3-4 weeks, I have barely been on the computer at all, much less had time to blog. I, now, find myself a single mom for the next year due to military deployment, and it has taken me a month to even find my footing with the extra workload. Hopefully by the time he comes home, I will actually be functioning well! (ha) One can hope, right? Anyways, let us talk about another festival of the year that happened in February!
We celebrated Candlemas - or Imbolc, February 1-2, as I mentioned in this post. There is so much rich history surrounding Imbolc, but I will try to sum it up in a few short paragraphs before sharing how we celebrated this festival. Although, it has been celebrated for thousands and thousands of years, on every continent and in every religion and culture - from Ancient Egypt to Asia to our own Native Americans and more, it is most known to our modern world from some the traditions rooted in Celtic and Anglo-Saxon history. Imbolc marks the beginning of the lambing season and signals the beginning of Spring and the stirrings of new life. It is Feile Brighde, the 'quickening of the year'. The original word Imbolg means 'in the belly'. All is pregnant and expectant - and only just visible if at all, like the gentle curve of a 'just-showing' pregnancy. It is the promise of renewal, of hidden potential, of earth awakening and life-force stirring. Here is hope. We welcome the growth of the returning light and witness Life's insatiable appetite for rebirth.
This idea is quite relevant to the season: we are witnessing the very first promise of a new life, a parallel with a pregnant belly hiding a beautiful potential. Light is slowly returning after the darkest days of Winter Solstice, and Nature is about to be reborn into the light and life of Spring. It is, in essence, the celebration of new beginnings. It is time to let go of the past and to look to the future, clearing out the old, making both outer and inner space for new beginnings. This can be done in numerous ways, from spring cleaning your home to clearing the mind and heart to allow inspiration to enter for the new cycle. ('Spring cleaning was originally a nature ritual'). It. is a good time for wish-making or making a dedication.
Imbolc is traditionally the great Festival of Light and honoring of Brigid (Brighid, Bride, Brigit). She was so loved as a Goddess that her worship was woven into the Christian church as St Bridgit. She is a Goddess of healing, poetry, and smithcraft. She is the Goddess of Fire, of the Sun and of the Hearth, who keeps the hearth fires burning and watches over domestic life and the home. She brings fertility to the land and its people and is closely connected to midwives and newborn babies. She is the Triple Goddess, but at Imbolc she is in her Maiden aspect.
In centuries past, Imbolc signaled that the long, harsh Winter would be soon over, and life would become easier with the coming warmth and abundance of spring temperatures and gardens. There would be milk and cheese to abate the hunger of Winter, as the ewes and cows began to have their young. People would once again be able to fill their bellies with nourishing foods such as milk and butter and cheeses. This made Imbolc the perfect time to move forward, look toward the future and make space for hope.
You may have also heard this festival called Candlemas, and it refers to the Christian version of the festival. It is a holiday of purification and light, with the candles representing the purifying nature of light, both spiritually and physically. It is also the ritual end to the Christmas season, and often Christmas greenery are burned on this day, and holiday decorations are put away.
The traditions of celebrating Candlemas vary in different parts of the world. In Scotland, Candlemas is a day where children brought candles into school to bring light into the classroom during dim winter days. Later, when candles gave way to electric light, students would collect money to give to teachers for buying treats for the classroom. Students that collected the most would be dubbed Candlemas Queen and King and could “rule” their classroom for a few weeks. And, in Ireland, Candlemas is St Brigit's Day, as mentioned above.
Here in the U.S., February 2 is more commonly known as "Groundhog Day" when we look toward the spring and whether or not the Groundhog will see his shadow. Whether he sees it or not, we know that come early or late, spring is on its way! Ancient cultures throughout Europe and the Middle East have long watched animals on this day as a weather predictor. Clear, sunny weather at Imbolc meant that more harsh weather would follow. While bad weather at Imbolc meant that Winter was nearly over. In some traditions, merely the emergence of a particular animal signaled that Spring was near.
Whatever your belief, Imbolc/Candlemas is a beautiful tradition to celebrate light and mark the halfway point between winter and spring with your family. Following, you will find some of the activities we did to celebrate this festival and to honor Nature's rhythms.
Making Beeswax Candles
There is no better way to celebrate the light than by making your very own candles. This is something we started doing regularly last year, although I used to make my own candles when the older girls were infants. We make candles on a monthly basis now, because we use candles every day as part of our daily rhythm and ritual. As this was the Festival of Light, we made a day of it, and rolled SIXTY! I found that by doing rolled beeswax candles, I could include the girls in this homemaking ritual. They are still too young to handle hot wax for pouring (which I prefer) or dipping candles, so this way they can take part in making something for our home and that they see in use daily. They get so much joy from doing tasks like this, as do I!
Here are a few verses we say with the children, as we light our homemade candles on Imbolc/Candlemas:
When Candlemas Day is bright with sun; Then Winter’s power has just begun – But when Candlemas Day is dark with rain Then Winter’s power is on the wane!
A farmer should, on Candlemas Day, Have half his corn and half his hay. On Candlemas Day if the thorns hang adrop, You can be sure of a good pea crop.
Badger peeps out on Candlemas Day, and if he finds snow, he walks away. But if the sun is shining down, Badger returns to his hole in the ground.
Making butter is so incredibly easy, and something I believe everyone should do at least once! You can make butter using a blender, handheld blender, mixer, a churn, or any other tool that will help you agitate liquid. I even used to make butter by shaking it in a glass gallon jar with a lid, when I was a young girl!
I have been on the lookout for a butter churn to replace the one I lost three years ago, and finally found one here! It is an antique Dazey butter churn (with the original jar) in excellent condition, and was a fraction of the cost of what they usually run - if you can find one! I thought this festival was an excellent reason to put it to use for the first time since we got it! This was the first time my girls had made butter with me, and we have made it a bi-weekly ritual now.
As a young girl/woman, we had our own milk cow (and at one point we had two). When we were much younger, we lived in North Carolina, and had a sweet Jersey cow named Helen. Helen was a darker grayish-brown and dark brown rings around her eyes with darker hair on her face as well. I remember, she used to love to be rubbed in the wide space between her eyes. She would come running whenever she was called. And, when we lived in Missouri, we had a light brown Jersey cow named Daisy, who could be quite ornery, as well as a sweet Jersey/Holstein cow named Ernestine. Ernestine had the markings of a Holstein, but with brown mixed in. She was so gentle, you could go sit on her or lay on her out in the pasture while she was lying down. She loved to be petted, and she would often nudge you so you would pet her , as she followed you to the barn. She was smaller than a typical Holstein, but she gave loads of rich milk. Sometimes, she would give nearly 2 gallons at each milking even after her calf would nurse! We milked them all by hand, and would then strain the milk into containers and take it to the house. Any extra, we would feed to any of the other "bottle" calves we might have at any given moment, but we usually left the calves with their mamas. The cats especially loved any extra handouts too!
For this butter, I did NOT milk a cow, of course, because we live in a metropolitan area at the moment, and not a farm...but there are a few small hobby farms outside of Vegas where we can find fresh milk. For the best-tasting results, seek out dairy products that are organic and preferably produced locally. The fresher and more natural the ingredients, the tastier the results. (Organic dairy and meat are two things I never compromise on, for health reasons. That is a subject for another day!) However, if you do not have a local farm source, you can pick up a quart of organic heavy cream at your grocer and do the same thing. Some health food grocers carry milk "with the cream on top" but you would need several gallons to have enough cream to skim for butter.
If you are using whole milk with cream on the top, skim off the cream and reserve the milk for regular use, otherwise...begin by pouring the cream (heavy cream if you are using that instead of fresh) into the churn (or whatever you are going to "churn" it in). Over many years of churning in my family growing up, we always let the cream sit out on the counter from morning until afternoon (or late morning if it was really warm in the house), and then we would churn it, because the butter would churn faster at room temperature. However, you can do it straight out of the refrigerator. It will just take longer to turn.
If you are using a blender or a mixer, it will take no time at all to turn the butter. However, we still prefer to do it the "old-fashioned" way. It is much slower, but it forces us to slow down and take time - something we all need in today's world. The rhythmic turning of the handle and watching the milk swirl is hypnotic and relaxing. We also often sing to keep churning in rhythm, especially when the girls are tiring of churning for so long.
After churning for sometime, you will begin to see butter "grains" forming in the milk - little specks of the fat coming together to form butter. Keep churning! Shortly after you begin to see the grains forming...just when you think it will never turn...you will suddenly have big chunks of golden butter floating in your milk. When you can clearly see that the butter has separated from the milk, stop. Strain the contents, over a large bowl, through a fine sieve or organic cheesecloth. I like to use several layers of Grade 90 organic cheesecloth. Squeeze out as much milk as you can. Place the butter into another bowl, and press it with a spoon or spatula until all the liquid has been extracted. We like to use another "old-fashioned" tool for this - butter paddles. They are made specifically for this purpose. You can find some like we use, here. Save the buttermilk! Store it in a lidded glass jar and use it to make biscuits, the soda bread recipe that follows below, pancakes, or anything that calls for buttermilk!
Next, gather the solid butter together and shape it into a ball or other convenient shape. If you plan to use the butter within a day, you can shape it and return it to the refrigerator to chill. If you want butter that will last much longer, you need to "wash" it. Add a cup of ice-cold water into the bowl and mix them together. You can also do this under running water, if you prefer. Pour off the water, and again strain and press all of the liquid out of the butter.
You may then salt the butter, if you wish, or use herbs to flavor it. Mix it in with a fork, if desired. You can then form the butter into any shape you desire. The simplest approach is to form it into a log shape on some parchment paper. If you roll the wrapped log back and forth on the counter, it will smooth out the rough edges and lumps. Store the butter wrapped in parchment, and it will last at least a month in the refrigerator. Place the wrapped butter in a sealed bag and you can freeze it for at least a year.
You may also use a butter mold to make beautiful shapes and designs on your butter. There are a few cute wooden chick and lamb molds on Amazon, or a plain one like this. Or, you can just put it in a glass bowl like we did this time, and use some Bees Wrap to cover it and keep it fresh. We also have a butter bell that I keep butter in for easy spreading on toast and fresh bread. There is nothing better than fresh churned butter on homemade bread with a drizzle of honey!
Imbolc is a festival closely associated with milk and milk products. Even simple cheeses are cherished when the first milk of the year is available. You might think of cheese-making as a process using strange cultures and esoteric aging techniques. And, definitely, cheese makers work wonderful magic to produce an astounding variety of cheese available to us now in 2019. Rather than venture into the magical realm of cheese making, you can make a very simple cheese with just a few ingredients you most likely already have on hand! This simple technique works overnight and requires very little labor - unlike traditional cheese making. The result is a soft, cheesy yogurt similar to cream cheese that can be flavored easily. And, it is delicious!
What You Need:
1 quart organic, unflavored yogurt (I recommend using whole milk yogurt)
colander or mesh strainer
large bowl to hold the colander/strainer
salt and herbs/fruit to flavor, optional
Begin by placing your colander over the bowl. If the colander touches the bottom of the bowl, place a saucer or small bowl upside down inside the big bowl to lift the colander up. This allows for complete draining. Next, line the colander with 3-4 layers of cheesecloth. Spoon the yogurt into the cheesecloth. Place bowl in the refrigerator overnight.
The next morning, you will find that the liquid whey has separated from the yogurt and into the bottom of the bowl, leaving behind a firm "cheese". Place the bowl on the counter and carefully gather the cheesecloth at the top, enclosing the ball of cheese. Twist the top of the cheesecloth, so it cannot squirt out the top. Then, gently squeeze the cheesecloth from top to bottom, in order to extract any remaining liquid. You should be able to extract nearly half as cheese and half as liquid whey. Then, open the cheesecloth and transfer to a clean bowl. The cheesecloth can be washed and reused many times, so do not throw it out!
The unflavored cheese can be served as is, but I think a pinch or two of salt greatly enhances its flavor. You can also flavor it with herbs or fruit! For a savory cheese - which we chose to do this time, try adding 1-2 tablespoons of organic dried Basil and a teaspoon of salt to the cheese. For a fruity option, you may try adding 1/2-3/4 cup of organic fresh blackberries and mixing well. For a sweet option, you can try adding 1 cup of blackberry preserves or locally harvested raw honey.
Mix the ingredients thoroughly with a fork. Cover the bowl and return it to the refrigerator until shortly before you serve it Once it is chilled again, you can slice the ball in half and place the flat side down on a platter for a nice presentation. We did not get an "after" pick, because we ate it straight out of the bowl. It was so yummy, we did not have any leftovers!
Baking Soda Bread
This simple and traditional bread requires no yeast and is a tasty way to enjoy the yogurt cheese and butter from the two recipes above. It is also a good use of the buttermilk leftover from churning your fresh butter! This is a hearty, rough-looking loaf, that will fill up tummies with some fresh, homemade soup. It is super easy, and one of our favorite quick breads to make!
Traditionally, it would have been made without sugar and salt, as those were luxuries hard to come by in centuries past, especially towards the end of winter when food stores were nearly depleted. I like to make mine with sugar and salt as it enhances the flavor, but it is not necessary. This traditional bread is filled with little pockets and crevices that butter and cheese can fill!
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon sugar (optional)
2 teaspoons salt (optional)
1 cup buttermilk
Thoroughly mix the powdered ingredients and stir in the buttermilk. Mix with a wooden spoon for 1-2 minutes and then knead with your hands for approximately 30 seconds. If the mixture is too dry, moisten it with a little more buttermilk but do not handle the dough any more than is absolutely needed. The dough should be a bit lumpy and wispy, so do not attempt to make it smooth.
Form the dough into a round shape about 8" wide. Place it on a cookie sheet that has been floured (traditional) or use parchment paper to line the sheet. Press the top flat and then cut the top with a sharp knife. Traditionally, you would make an X shape in the dough, using equal length cuts and going about an inch deep. You can make a third cut for a more festive look, to create a star or asterisk pattern.
Bake at 400 degrees for 40-45 minutes. The top should be browned and the loaf should make a hollow sound when you thump it with your finger. Remove it from the oven and allow it to cool for 15 minutes while covered with a clean teacloth or towel. It can then be served hot or allowed to cool completely. Enjoy - it is delicious!
Crafting Corn Dollies
There are as many ways to make corn dollies as there are versions of chili. Corn dollies are often associated with harvest festivals, but they are traditionally made at Imbolc as well. At Imbolc, they may be made from straw from the last harvest of the previous year or from reeds or grasses collected just before Imbolc. Even if you do not have a marsh nearby to gather reeds, most can find some sort of grasses to collect. If, like us, you live in a desert, where literally no grasses live, you can pop over to a craft store and grab some there.
Cut a small handful of the stalks, of whatever material you decide to use, to equal lengths. Double the bundle over at midpoint to form the body of the corn dolly. Hold the bottom half of the doubled-over bundle to keep the stalks in place. Tie the bundle just below the fold with another reed, or a piece of string, to form the head. Next, insert the other stalks crosswise between the body stalks to create the arms for the dolly. Tie the body of the dolly again below the arm stalks to keep them in place. Finally, if the material you are using is not very stiff, you can tie the ends of the arms together and trim the reeds, so they form the hands of the dolly.
Traditionally, they are made with a seed head (like on a stalk of wheat) - to represent fertility and the new life that is starting in the fields and gardens - as the head, but we do not have access to those materials, so this was our version! I, then, took a piece of green ribbon to wrap around the bodice of the doll for a bit of color and to provide a bit more stability to the body of the dolls. These are our female corn dollies!
Put away the winter decorations and bring in signs of spring. If warmer temps are on their way, put away winter clothes, and bring out spring clothes. Make a bonfire and burn your Christmas tree, or any other remnants of winter. Or cozy up under blankets and sit around a family fire pit.
The act of cleaning a single space in your home brings in a breath of positive energy that will bring peace of mind and soul. If you work hard to avoid physical clutter even in the depths of Winter, you can still benefit by clearing away the negative energy that accumulates in your home. Sweep and dust every nook and cranny, and as you work, visualize all the negative energy clinging to the dust you are sweeping, and as you sweep it away, so goes the negative energy. Clear you mind and spirit of anything no longer serving you, and create a space that is fresh and "new, with no mistakes in it" (to borrow from Anne Shirley).
Plant seeds, or make art with seeds, a symbol of fertility. For those that cannot yet plant outside, begin some seedlings in cups by windows, or in small pots like we have, to watch for those first signs of green peek through the earth. The seed is both a literal and symbolic representation of this festival. Literally, the seed represents the beginning of work and the life and nourishment that will result from it; food is the distinction between life and death for everyone.
However, the seed also serves as a symbolic representation because it represents potential, much like an egg you are waiting to hatch. Like an unhatched egg, the unplanted, unsprouted seed can hold many things. While you may know precisely what type of seed it is, you do not yet know what will grow from it. Will it grow into a large, healthy plant, or will it be weak and barely grow no matter the amount of nature and care you provide? When you look at that humble seed, think about how much potential lies within.
Every project you start, from starting a new business to beginning a family, is like planting a seed. You think you know what will result, but once you "plant" it, it will grow as Nature wishes, and you may end up with something entirely different from what you first dreamt or imagined.
So, hopefully, this will inspire you with ways to celebrate the coming change of seasons next year. I look forward to adding new traditions, as we continue to follow the wheel of the year around Earth's cycle. Regardless of how you choose to celebrate, blessings to your family and the promise of the coming Light!