Cowled in white with coins tinkling about my waist, I head outdoors to the bitter cold, basket and brideog in hand. “Welcome Brighid,” I sing, my voice echoing off the white and brown of the branches, rising to the swirled blue and white of winter sky. “Oh, Brighid is come, Brighid is welcome.”
I duck inside to the kitchen, where I had set the altar. I’ve done many types of Imbolc rituals through the years, in various places: the hearth, where the fire is lit and the stone blessed. The ritual room, bedecked with candles or with a bowl of melted snow. I’ve often honored her alongside Aonghus Og, the white-winged God who brings the spring, apropos to a time when buds are contemplating the branch.
But for the past few years, I’ve set my altar in the kitchen and honored her there, along with her father, the Dagda, the All-Father with his cauldron of plenty, from which none leave unsatisfied. Shelter, warmth, a full belly: these are the blessings of the temple kitchen, the kitchen that is a temple.
It’s a place we rarely honor, seeing food preparation as a chore or, more often, not thinking of it at all as we forage through the cabinets. It’s the lowly place, the place of the mother or grandmother or domestic servant, hidden from the honored guests in the parlor. But for all its low regard, it’s the place that draws us; party guests gravitate there, drawn by the warmth, the light and, above all, the food. There’s nothing pretentious about a kitchen; it is pure function, mixed with the comfort of food and warmth.
Barefoot on the cold floor, I sang and played my harp in her honor, offering a bowl of herbs dried from the garden, along with nuts, beans, sweets. The core of the ritual, though, is domestic: making bannock, a simple oatmeal bread, and meditating as it cooks. The bannock is offering, ritual token and blessing, as well as a meditation in and of itself.
After I pull the bannock from the oven, I recite a poem — most of it, really — by Elsa Gidlow called “Chains of Fires.” It reminds me of Brighid, of the importance of the hearth fire, of the role of our female ancestors throughout time. It reminds me, too, of the vigil I keep in her honor every 20 days.
Each dawn, kneeling before my hearth,
Placing stick, crossing stick
On dry eucalyptus bark
Now the larger boughs, the log
(With thanks to the tree for its life)
Touching the match, waiting for creeping flame.
I know myself linked by chains of fire
To every woman who has kept a hearth
In the resinous smoke
I smell hut and castle and cave,
Mansion and hovel.
See in the shifting flame my mother
And grandmothers out over the world
Time through, back to the Paleolithic
In rock shelters where flint struck first sparks
(Sparks aeons later alive on my hearth)
I see mothers , grandmothers back to beginnings,
Huddled beside holes in the earth
of igloo, tipi, cabin,
Guarding the magic no other being has learned,
Awed, reverent, before the sacred fire
Sharing live coals with the tribe.
For no one owns or can own fire,
it ]ends itself.
Every hearth-keeper has known this.
Hearth-less, lighting one candle in the dark
We know it today.
Fire lends itself,
Serving our life
(I do leave off the last verse, which is solstice-specific; you can read the entire poem here. Perhaps appropriately enough, Gidlow founded an artist’s retreat in California, dubbed Druid Heights.)
Imbolc is traditionally a domestic rite, centered on home and hearth. But other rituals, too, can be taken to the warmth of the kitchen and the resident hearth-goddess. Be welcome and offer welcome in the heart of the house.