Our hearth serves as a connecting point for all of our Grove Members. When one becomes a Member, they light a candle from the hearthfire to take home. When we light those candles on our own shrines, we are connected to everyone else.
Our hearthfire is kindled anew each year at Bealtaine. Though the Indo-European new year was probably at the Vernal Equinox, our Grove follows the Gaelic custom. Grove Members ritually extinguish their hearthfires at home, and then come to the rite. At the rite, our Grove hearthfire is ritually extinguished, and then it is relit. Ideally, the fire should be a need-fire relit from the Sun, but we’ve never done that. The fire is hallowed with nine sacred woods — woods that are both traditional and local, and are the very beginnings of Grove tree-lore (far more work needs to be done here). Into the fire is given the last remains of winter, which in the past has been the carline, the corn dolly of An Cailleach. (Unfortunately, our ritual site doesn’t allow bonfires, and she’s too big for the cauldron, so last year we buried the carline in our community garden plot.) Once we’ve established the fire, Grove Members are welcome to light their candles from the hearth to take home with them.
When we did this rite last year, it was also the first time we had separated the hearthfire from the sacrificial fire in our High Day rites. We carried the fire into our ritual space and lay it down with the line, “We build our Fire on the body of the Earth…”, claiming the land for ourselves. Though we use that line in each of our rites, when we light the hearthfire, at Bealtaine it has a more direct meaning. This year, we’ll be further exploring the land-claiming idea with the inclusion of beating the bounds in our rite, though I’m not entirely sure what form this will take.
Our hearthfire accepts no direct offerings in our rituals, except the initial offering to Brighid. Theoretically, offerings for Brighid (or even other hearth-specific deities) could be given into the hearth, though it’s easier in a large rite with guests to say that all offerings go into the sacrificial fire. The sacrificial fire is lit from the hearthfire, our Fire Tender using a long match to transfer the flame from one cauldron to another. The sacrificial fire is established as the means by which we communicate with the Gods, and it is the fire that will open as a Gate. At the end of the rite, it is extinguished.
The Fire Tender, by our custom (but not our rule) is often tended by someone who is a flametender of Brighid. Since we have four in the Grove, duties rotate fairly often. There is nothing in our liturgy that states one must be a flametender to perform this role. We consider the Fire Tender to be one of our “pillars” of ritual, as she must maintain both fires on the altar including adding more fuel at appropriate times, be prepared to handle any fire emergencies, and provide direction to those giving offerings. Normally, she also aids in setting up and tearing down the altar.
At home in my personal rites, there are different practices, as I believe that home rites do not necessarily require the same exactness that public rites do. (Home rites do not also necessarily require the opening of Gates, but that’s a different discussion.) At home, there is only the hearthfire, though sometimes there is a censer, but I see that as an extension of the hearthfire rather than a sacrificial fire. Brighid has her own shrine on which the Kildare flame burns, and that flame is only ever touched by me, though Lugaid is welcome to leave offerings at her shrine. The hearthfire is most often lit by me, which I believe is most correct but not required; it is my responsibility to light and smoor it each day. That is a combination of both my role as priest and an exploration of traditional gender roles within marriage. I’m also partial to covered hair for Brighidine flametenders, Fire Tenders in public rites, and for rites specifically focused on the hearthfire, but this isn’t something I’d ever require anyone else to do.