Zen and the original Kindle

The best $3.99 I spent this winter was an impulse purchase at the Walgreen’s check-out counter amidst the cigarettes, holiday candies and gossip rags. “Fireplace Reflections,” promised the DVD case, and a few hours later when I popped it into my laptop, that’s exactly what I got — a high-def version of hearth if not home, complete with crackling twigs and kindling.

Hey, beggars can’t be choosers, and for those of us without the luxury of our own fireplace but a bad penchant for romance and rumination, a fake fire is nothing short of a godsend, a third-eye-worthy focal point, and a real source of warmth — not to mention the absolute antithesis of the myriad other screens in our lives, the sole purpose of which I’m beginning to think is to busy our minds with absolutely anything but the sort of stillness that comes from the ancient tribal ritual of staring into an altar of flames.

The original fire worshippers started bowing down to the flames in 1500 BC, but the fake fire phenomenon started with “The Yule Log,” a continuous tape-loop video of a fireplace that first aired on Christmas Eve 1966 on WPIX-TV in New York City. Station president and CEO Fred Thrower correctly sensed that apartment-dwellers in the Big Apple would enjoy gathering around the cathode ray blaze, and a tradition was born.

Locally, Channel 45 started airing a version a few years ago that features a shadowy poker-wielding figure tending logs from the wings. Nationally, there is something of fake fire cottage industry afoot, including multi-DVD sets that pair the classic yule log with digitally rendered lava, waterfalls and aquariums (if you’re desperate for light reading, be sure to check out the head-slap-inducing customer’s comments — “not bright enough,” “I’ve seen better,” etc. — under the fireplace DVDs section of amazon.com).

Of course, there’s nothing like the real thing. Last month I stayed at a friend’s apartment that came with a working fireplace, and a couple times at the end of the day I was lucky enough to find myself alone in front of its primal pull. I built it and lit it and got as close as I could to the heat, crouching and praying and finally being taken back to my childhood, when I would sit for hours in front of the family fireplace listening to music, doing homework, and wondering about life.

Now, these frigid nights, I love walking the dog through neighborhoods spiked with the smoke of up to a half-dozen chimneys each. It’s good for the soul (not to mention a reminder of our tribal past), and the truth is playing peeping tom to all that peace and contemplation going on inside the homes has been a sacred reminder of how, to quote Springsteen, at the end of every hard-earned day people find some reason to believe.

And a way to stay warm — even if it’s only via a digital glowbox that comes blissfully free of commercials, status updates and tweets.

Jim Walsh lives and grew up in East Harriet.