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Christmas A to Z

Learn interesting, unusual, unique and useful facts and tips about Christmas and the winter holiday season, in America and around the world.

The Origins of the Hearth as a Cherished Christmas Symbol

I

t’s interesting to see how many symbols of Christmas have their origins back in the days of the early Germans and Scandinavians, hundreds or even thousands of years before the birth of Jesus. One of them has to do (according to a whole bunch of legends, most of which don’t agree with each other but eventually come out in the end as something we might recognize) with burning logs in a fireplace (the Yule Log story is elsewhere).

When people had only recently moved out of caves and into stone huts they hadn’t yet mastered the art of building a chimney with a fireplace. They would construct a circle of stones underneath a hole in the roof and collect stuff that would burn and then light a fire. As the smoke rose toward the sky it often appeared to take on human shape – sort of like the game of seeing animals/objects/people in cloud formations. After awhile, with bunches of people talking about how the smoke in their hut looked like someone, the stories melded together and became part of the verbal tradition of the village/tribe.

It coalesced around a being called Hertha. She was not at all attractive, with wispy smoky curls, a face that featured a long iron nose and shoes made of coals – but she was worth worshiping (and lighting fires for) because she was a muse for storytellers and singers of tales. She also was known to bring gifts for good little children around the end of what would end up becoming December – and woe betide the little ones who had not been good.

So, Hertha – a goddess of the hearth – may be the source of burning logs not just to keep warm, keeping kids on their best behavior when they couldn’t go outside because it was too cold and, perhaps, the idea of some magic entity associated with a place where fire was burned who brought gifts ("…. and laying his finger aside of his nose, and giving a nod, up the chimney he rose…").

Written by Dianne Weller
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