The History Of The Yule Log : Christmas Custom and Tradition

What does the name “Yule log” mean to you? You might be thinking of a traditional dessert served during Christmas. A chocolate sponge cake rolled and filled with vanilla cream and frosted with chocolate butter-cream to mimic a log or a tree bark. It is decorated with meringue mushrooms, sugared cobwebs, marzipan holly sprigs etc. to make it look as authentic and as close to a real log as possible. The tradition of this cake (also known as bûche de Noël in French) dates back to the early 17th century. The first recipe of the bûche de Noël appeared in 1615 in Gervaise Markham’s tome “The English Huswife”.

Yule Log History:

But what remains just in the form of a cake is a tradition that started long back, even before the advent of Christianity.  The first reference of the tradition of the Yule Log can be found in Norse Mythology. Once practiced by the Vikings and Germanic people, the burning of the Yule Log, was a part of the celebrations of the winter solstice. With spring, the days would become longer and would mean the rebirth of the Sun. To mark the end of the dark winter days and the coming of spring, people would burn wood, drink wine and celebrate. One of the winter solstice festivals were called by the name of “Jol” (also pronounced as Yule). It was a feast celebrated throughout Northern Europe and Scandanavia in honor of Jolnir or the Norse God Odin. Odin was the God of intoxicating drink and ecstasy, as well as the God of Death. So the customs and rituals varied from region to region. But one thing was in common, the Yule was linked to good health and prosperity.

During Forth Century AD when Christianity took over paganism, Pope Julius I decided to celebrate Christmas during the winter solstice. The tradition of the Yule log prevailed but the light of the Sun was now the Light of the Savior.

Yule Log Tradition:

As the tradition goes, the Yule Log was carefully chosen and was cut and dragged home by oxen or horses, while people walked along with it and sang songs and rejoiced at the commencement of celebrations. It was considered to be of misfortune if you buy a Yule log. The larger end of the log would then find its place in the hearth while the rest of the log would stick out. The Yule log would be decorated and wine sprinkled all over it.  Before lighting the log, the remains of the previous year’s log were to be fetched from under the homeowner’s bed. The remains which were believed to have safeguarded the house from fire and lightning would serve to light the new log. The use of the remains from the previous year epitomized continuity and represented the eternal light of heaven. The lighting of the Yule Log had to be done with clean hands and the fire had to be lit in a single attempt. While handling it with dirty hands meant showing disrespect to the one that would be protecting you throughout the year, the failure to light the log in a single attempt symbolized misfortune. While the log burnt members of the family and friends would sit around it in merrymaking and spirit and ghost stories would do their rounds. Any shadow that was cast on the walls during this time was carefully scrutinized as it was believed that a headless shadow would mean a death in the house within a year. Some even left their food and wine on the table overnight for the ghosts of the yuletide. Once the fire was put off, the remains of the Yule Log would be collected and kept for the next year’s rituals.

Different countries have different rituals associated with the tradition of the Yule Log.

In U.K the log is referred to as the “MOCK”. The log was dried and the bark taken out before it was brought to the house for burning. Often the log was collected from barrel makers also known as Coopers. They used to give away the old logs that couldn’t be used for the making of barrels. In England, oak trees were generally used for the occasion and it was supposed to burn for twelve days. The log would be finally extinguished on the twelfth day of Christmas. A large bunch of Ash twigs replaced the log in Devon and Somerset. The twigs mimic the ones that were burnt to keep Jesus warm after his birth.

In France, special carols were sung while bringing the Yule Log home. With the disappearance of big open fire places, they started cutting their logs to pieces and a piece would be fed to the fire every day, for twelve days at a stretch. The cherry tree served the purpose here. The tradition in France has been reduced to eating the Yule log cake in most places. Provence has its own ritual of the log being paraded three times around the house before it’s blessed with wine and eventually lit up.

A fire burning in a fireplace.

In Yugoslavia, the Yule log was cut before dawn on the Christmas eve and brought to home before twilight, where it was decorated with flowers, colored silks and gold, and drenched with wine and an offering of grain.

Across Spain’s catalian region, children make the festive shit log. It’s called the Tio de Nadal. A hollow log with legs sticking out, a smiley face and a red hat is fed with nuts, dried fruits and water by the children from December 8th to the 24th. The log is covered with a blanket to keep it warm. On the Christmas eve, children gather around it and beat it up. The log is supposed to shower poop gifts which can be recovered from under the blanket.

The ashes of the Yule may or may not bring health productivity or protect you from fire and lightning, but if added to your plant soil will definitely give you a better yield. We still do not know if the medicinal values associated with the ashes are a myth, but what we know for sure is that it brings us together. It does what every ritual is supposed to do. Bring a smile on your face and on the faces of everyone around you.

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