Why, what’s the matter,
That you have such a February face,
So full of frost, of storm and cloudiness? - William Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing (V,iv)
Today is the ancient festival of Imbolc, celebrated by the Celts as the beginning of spring and the day sacred to Brigit, the goddess of fire and healing. The Irish drove their cattle between two sacred bonfires on this day in the belief that it would help to keep them free of parasites, and when the festival was Christianized as Candlemas the association with fire and healing remained: this is the day on which all the candles to be used in the next year are consecrated, and the candles are used tomorrow (St. Blaise’s Day) to bless churchgoers so as to protect them from ailments of the throat.
Due to our continental climate, few North Americans can imagine this day as anywhere near spring; accordingly, we celebrate the beginnings of the seasons on the solstices and equinoxes and perceive the cross-quarter days (Imbolc, Beltane, Lammas and Samhain…or as Americans call them, Ground Hog Day, May Day, August 1st and Halloween) as the midpoints of the seasons rather than as their beginnings. Indeed, where I live February is often the coldest month (unlike South Louisiana, where it’s usually very spring-like). As I explained in my column of one year ago today, the Celtic and Germanic peoples believed that the cross-quarter days could be used as inverse weather predictors for the next six weeks, and though the tradition has been forgotten for the other three days it remains alive and well for this one, so much so that Americans name it after the sacred animal used for the weather-forecasting ritual.
We always celebrate Imbolc with a feast, and since it’s in the middle of Carnival season (Mardi Gras is February 21st this year) the center of that feast is always a big pot of chicken and andouille gumbo made from my sister’s recipe. Like king cake, the dish is best when the initial stage is completed a day in advance, and since many of you enjoyed seeing that recipe I’ve decided to give you the one for gumbo as well this coming Tuesday (unlike king cake, it isn’t seasonal; gumbo can be eaten any time of year, and some old Cajun ladies still make it every Sunday). It’ll require a full column, not because it’s especially complicated (it isn’t), but because some of the culinary terms may be unfamiliar to many of my readers and will thus require a bit of explanation (and photos I’ll take today).
I pray that all my readers, no matter what your individual beliefs, find renewal in your lives at this time; I ask that negative things die away like weeds in winter, and that positive things appear and grow for you like leaves in the spring. Blessed Be!