The Yule Log is a large log, traditionally of ash or oak, that’s burned at Christmas. Carried ceremoniously into the house Christmas Eve, it is lighted with a chip of the previous year’s log. Using the old log to light the new one preserves a family’s good fortune.
The Yule Log is but one of the traditions we’ve taken from the ancient Norse. Evergreen decorations, including the Christmas tree and even the Christmas feast, all owe their origins to those Norsemen.
Christmas itself is a meld of two pagan festivals — the great Yule feast of the Norse and the Roman Saturnalia.
Norse tradition came into Christmas because Christian celebrations of the birth of Christ lasted from the beginning of December till Candlemas Day on February 2. This period encompassed the winter solstice, so early Christians were inspired to adopt many Norse customs, including the Yule Log.
The Yule Log tradition is widespread in Europe now, although for years it was celebrated mainly in England, France, and southern Slavic countries. It follows that the cake known as la Bûche de Noël (Yule Log) came to us from France.
In parts of France and Switzerland, the log-lighting is accompanied by a prayer that women might have children and that “she-goats will bring forth kids, and ewes will drop lambs” (The Golden Bough, Sir James G. Frazer).
However, the original purpose of the log had nothing to do with fertility. It was a way to help the struggling sun rekindle its dying light during midwinter darkness. Let’s try to put ourselves into those ancient minds and realize their fear that the sun might go away forever.
Gift-giving came from the Saturnalia (Festival of Saturn). Wealthy Romans gave presents to the needy at that time. Punch magazine, in 1841, urged that Christmas be the time when the hungry should be fed. In 1843, Charles Dickens supported this idea with his famous, A Christmas Carol.
At the same time, Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, introduced the Christmas tree to Britain. Albert was German and Christmas trees had long been popular in Germany.
Nevertheless, such trees didn’t originate in Germany even though Martin Luther is often credited with introducing them during the 16th century. Decorated tree can be traced back to the ancient tree-worship indulged in by Europe’s Nordic tribes.
The bringing of light into a dark world has a very old history, but it’s unlikely anyone burning a Yule Log today ever considers that. In fact, today’s manifestation of the Yule Log is TV’s Fireplace Channel.
Yule is an old term for Christmas. It arises from the Norse Yule Festival which was presided over by the god, Odin. Oxford defines Yule as, “Christmas day; Christmastide.” The word first appeared in Old English as geol/geola, but comes from the Teutonic jeul (a 12-day heathen feast).
Yule Log superstitions
• The Yule Log must burn for 12 hours. Should it go out, or be too small, tragedy will strike.
• The Yule Log must never burn completely. Some must be kept to start next year’s fire or the household will have bad luck.
• Yule Log ashes mixed with seeds ensure a bumper crop.
• If someone casts a headless shadow in the Yule Log firelight, it means that person will die in the coming year.
• Yule Log ashes placed in a well, keep the water pure.
• The Yule Log may be re-lit so it might burn throughout the 12 days of Christmas, but must not be extinguished before midnight Christmas Eve to avoid death in the family in the coming year.