…the hearth which is dark and smoldering
may glow again.
the torch which is quenched
may blaze anew…
— Ancient Babylonian hearth blessing
An eerie stillness. The scrape of snow shovels on sidewalks is the only occasional sound. My friend Nan notes that this period between Yule and the New Year feels like a void. The world is suspended, as if this were the time before time.
All this snow means moisture, and every flake seems precious as we heave it off the cement and onto earth. Nights have been white as noon. The tops of houses are disappeared. No sky, no ground. A white so white, it bears no contrasts, no shadows. Everything is saturated, the lines between known and unknown are blurred. The storm is unfathomable as creation.
At least this is appropriate to the season. The droughty weather — called “nice” or “pleasant” or “why we love to live in Colorado” by ignorant TV weather announcers — is in fact alarming. We need water.
Now is the time to turn to the hearth, which confirms our identity with house and home, shelter and safety. The hearth is the altar of the house. As the heart is the center of the self, the seat of emotion, the vessel of the soul, so the hearth is the heart of the home, the gathering place. To Chinese and Hindu sages, the vital heartbeat was the expression of the entire universe, the tempo of eternity. The hearth is where the family’s rhythms harmonize.
When the land is fallow, the work of spinning, weaving, quilting, art- and craftmaking, studying, repairing tools and mending of all sorts went on beside the hearth. As the heart beats in pace with poetry, song, color, and dance, so the hearth’s glow emits stories, inventions, community and comfort. The words heart and earth are neatly embedded in the hearth.
And when it’s time to celebrate a new moment on the winter garden calendar, the hearth is the locus from which rituals and festivals such as Yule evolve. In Latin, the hearth fire is focus.
We’ve lost the integration of hearth, house, and garden, and too many of us are lonely, yearning for a sense of place (and replacing it with “stuff”) that attention to the calendar, rituals of seasons, and care for the simple art of the ordinary might remedy. “The secret to happiness,” said William Morris, a founder of the 19th-century Arts and Crafts movement, “lies in taking a genuine interest in all the details of daily life and elevating them to art.”
In our culture of so-called “progress,” we’re likely to substitute the real thing with a fireplace video (complete with crackling sound), symbolic of some of the deprivation in our modern lives. A video fireplace may be better for the environment — no woodcutting, no coal use, no smoke in the air — but clearly that’s not the only issue. Attending to the real details of daily life, as Morris says, is not only a means to elevate life to art, but it is ecologically sound, helping us to understand and take our place as true participants in the oikos, the Earth Household.
For the Ainu people of Northern Japan, the hearth fire is a goddess resident in the home. And every Chinese household kept a small niche in the wall above the stove that held incense and the image of a god. At the new year, the image was burned and the stove god traveled to heaven on the smoke to report on the family and determine its future.