There aren’t too many people in Arizona who are looking to buy a house right now (unfortunately, most are—quite desperately—on the other side of that equation). A friend of mine, however, is actually in the market for a new home. Being the organized person she is, she presented her realtor with a list in which she had neatly detailed her “must haves,” “nice to haves,” and “absolutely nots.” Although it is clearly a buyer’s market, the realtor still raised an eyebrow when she got to #3 on the list of required items.
“Really?” she asked, “A woodburning fireplace? And this is mandatory?”
It wasn’t an unreasonable question. Here in Tucson, we average something like 100 days a year at 100 degrees or above, and while our winters do get considerably cooler than that, a fireplace is hardly required for warmth or comfort.
Nevertheless, my friend assured her realtor that this one was non-negotiable. “I have to have access to fire,” she confided, “I think it’s something in my DNA.”
I think it must be in mine, too. (I guess if you’re human, it’s probably safe to say that fire is in your DNA. After all, it played an important role in the lives of ancient people worldwide.) In my case, at least one side of the family hails from the British Isles, where–every year at this time–our ancestors celebrated Samhain (usually pronounced sow-een). The ancient Celts honored the opposing balance of intertwining forces of existence: darkness and light, night and day, death and life, cold and heat. Samhain is the time when the sun is the farthest south of the equator, and some believe that it was the most important festival as it marked the beginning of a new dark-light cycle. For the Celts, this was the beginning of a new year and the death of the old. But Samhain was not just about the year’s end and the coming of winter; the ancient Celts saw Samhain as a very spiritual time.Because October 31st lies exactly between the Autumnal Equinox and the Winter Solstice, it is theorized that ancient people, with their reliance on astronomy, thought it was a very powerful time for magic and communion with the spirits. The “veil between the worlds” of the living and the dead was believed to be the thinnest on this day so, as with the Days of the Dead in Mexico, the dead were invited to return to feast with their loved ones. Ancient customs ranged from placing food out for dead ancestors to performing rituals for communication with those who had passed over.
But not all the returning spirits were expected to be friendly, and considerable effort was put into protecting oneself from those who came back with intentions of mischief. Young people would put on strange disguises and roam about the countryside, in an attempt to copy the evil spirits or placate them. Many contemporary Halloween traditions have their roots in these ancient Celtic practices. Another tradition that has survived as a common aspect of today’s Halloween festivities is carving jack-o-lanterns. However, pumpkins are a new world vegetable. The Celts made their candle lanterns out of large turnips, which they hollowed out, carved with faces, placed in windows to ward off evil spirits. Since Samhain was also the Celtic New Year, people focused on their wishes and desires for the coming year. Certain traditions, such as bobbing for apples, roasting nuts in the fire, and baking cakes containing tokens of luck, are actually based on ancient methods of telling fortunes.
But more than anything else, this was a time of celebration—a time to give thanks for the harvest of the summer and to ask a blessing for coming months. Villagers gathered the best of the autumn harvest and slaughtered cattle for the feast. The primary focus of each village’s festivities was a great bonfire. Villagers cast the bones of the slaughtered cattle upon the flames (the word “bonfire” comes from these “bone fires.”) With the great bonfire roaring, villagers extinguished all other fires. Each family then solemnly re-lit their hearth from the one common flame, bonding the families of the village together through the element of fire.
Fire is the most mysterious of the four elements; it has many faces. Fire can destroy, transform, and regenerate. There is the fire of anger or creativity, the joyous bonfire, or the fire of passion and love. But in the case of the hearth and home, fire is nurturing, providing families with warmth and comfort.
For centuries, great symbolism was involved in both extinguishing the hearth fire, and re-lighting and maintaining it. If a hearth fire went out unexpectedly, it was bad news. This makes sense from a practical perspective; after all, it was relatively cold and damp year round in Ireland. And it was inconvenient—someone had to be sent immediately to a neighbor’s house for a piece of charcoal. But some scholars believe the hearth fire had spiritual implications as well, and when it went out it may have symbolized the loss of the love of the family.
We still allude to this idea when we talk about “keeping the home fires burning.” Ronnie Milsap even had a hit song about it.
While it may not be practical to keep a fire burning all the time anymore, it is still more pleasant to come home to a place that exudes a warm glow. Another friend of mine always kept one of those Mexican 7-day veladora candles (the ones in the glass cylinders) burning on her kitchen windowsill. Even late at night, it always felt good to walk into her home. You might want to consider doing something along these lines. If you don’t feel comfortable leaving a candle burning, a small light (like a nightlight) can produce a similar effect. And if anyone raises an eyebrow, you can just explain that you’re doing it for your hearth and soul; you might even say it’s in your DNA…
To display all related posts, enter “hearth” in the Search box.