We replaced our fireplace with gas about 10 years ago. It was my husband Jim's idea actually, once he caught on to the fact that one could have a beautiful roaring fire without hauling in the wood and kindling, rolling the newspapers tightly, placing everything just so and babying it until it caught. This was his job, a "man" job. My job was to make sure we had wood. Our Livorna Swim Team used to sell it by the half-cord; later I bought it in big handy boxes from Safeway. I also got to do the cleanup.
The biggest downside of the "real" fire was that it would be burning beautifully in our living room but we would want to do something else in another room, like watch TV in the family room, or do something in the kitchen, or go to bed. Often, knowing we would only be in the living room for an hour or so, we wouldn't light a fire, although we really wanted one on cold winter afternoons or evenings. Now we just switch our gas fireplace on and off at will. Got a half hour? Pull up in front of the fireplace and enjoy a cup of tea.
There are times when a real fire is important. Such as for burning things. I remember when I was a teenager and had a painful breakup with a boyfriend. I carried a shoebox filled with his letters into the living room, sat on the floor in front of the fireplace and, one by one, watched his false declarations of love go up in flames. The finality of it - and the twisting and distorting of the pages as they turned into ashes - was strangely satisfying. I guess these days, teenagers sit on the floor in front of their family's paper shredder and watch their letters get sliced into oblivion.
Now that wood-burning fireplaces are discouraged, and in many places outlawed, due to environmental concerns, what has happened to the traditional yule log? Jim and our son Pepe used to take great care in picking the biggest, best-shaped log in the woodpile for this honor each Christmas Eve, which they would manfully bring into the house while our young daughter Zoe and I oohed and aahed.
We have a yule log is our office right now that was decorated by a Boy Scout as a fundraiser. It looks lovely, adorned by real holly with berries and pine branches and a scroll explaining the history of the yule log, but what will be its fate come Christmas? At one time, the decorations would have been removed and it would have had the place of honor in the fireplace. Now yule logs burn during the Christmas season only on our TV screens.
We installed our gas fireplace shortly before Thanksgiving and were looking forward to Pepe's reaction when he came to dinner from his home in San Francisco. We had the fire burning from the time our guests arrived and all through dinner and no one said a word. Finally, as half of us still sat at the table but Pepe perched on a footstool to warm himself by the fire, Jim asked him if it needed another log. He glanced over and said, no, it looked fine. Perhaps he was distracted by the girlfriend he had brought to dinner. Jim asked him to look harder. And then - the outrage! The scorn! "But you taught me to build a fire!" he railed at Jim. "It was an important lesson - to be a man!" Gee, said Jim, he didn't know Pepe had been listening.
Now Pepe lives in Berlin, where chestnuts are roasting over coals on street corners and at the Christmas markets, to be savored along with the hot mulled wine. I don't think we could roast them in our gas fireplace - but then, to tell the truth, we never did.
Coming next week: "Jack Frost nipping on your nose."
-Dolores Fox Ciardelli can be e-mailed at editor@DanvilleWeekly.com.