Home Is Where the Hearth Is

The dog’s internal alarm clock rings every morning between 6:45 and 6:55. He ambles into my bedroom and shakes hard enough to make his tags jingle. That’s the first sound I hear on winter mornings, unless we’ve had snow overnight and the plow is clearing my street.

The dog and I make our way downstairs, and I don a heavy coat and boots to take him out in the back yard. There’s so much snow now that his constitutional is limited, which isn’t a bad thing for either of us because of the cold. Afterwards, I fetch his breakfast, start boiling water for tea, and then build a fire. The hydronic heating system in our house is set very low, and we rely on the fireplace to keep the temperature comfortable.

I start the fire the old-fashioned way with paper and kindling. Some mornings there are still embers from the night before, but oftentimes the flue is cold, and it takes considerable effort to warm it up and get the kindling going. Usually by the time the water for my tea boils, the fire is crackling.

There are days when I think it would be nice to turn a key and let a gas jet do the job, but mostly I find the ritual comforting. I’m not alone. Rituals involving fire have been found in virtually every religion and culture on the planet since the beginning of recorded time, and many of them still exist in one form or another.

In Catholic churches, churches of the Anglican Communion, and Lutheran churches, fire is a key element of the most important service of the liturgical year, the Great Vigil of Easter. Congregants gather outdoors in the darkness on the Saturday night before Easter Sunday. A fire is kindled, and the Paschal candle is lit from that fire and then carried inside the church to light still more candles. In the Jewish tradition, women light candles and recite a prayer to mark the beginning of Shabbat each Friday just before sunset.

One of the loveliest rituals involving fire was observed in ancient Greece. When a couple IMG_0886married, the bride’s mother lit a torch from the hearth in her home and, followed by the newlyweds, carried it to their new house. There she lit the first fire in their hearth, consecrating the new home.

For thousands of years the hearth was the heart of every home, and on winter mornings that is still the case in my house. The ritual of stacking paper and kindling, lighting it and watching smoke rise up the chimney, is a form of meditation for me. I’m no Luddite—I don’t want to give up electric lights, hot water at the touch of a tap, and other modern conveniences—but in that first moment when the flame catches, before the business and busyness of the day kicks in, I relish the connection with those who lived in caves, in cliff dwellings, and in sod houses and sat before a fire as I do.