Researching the Midwinter Yule, and the tradition of Yule Logs, has brought forth many fond memories for me. I loved gathering at the fireplace Christmas day to spend the day with my extended family, enjoying each other’s company and opening presents. I was lucky in that both sets of my grandparents had fireplaces in their homes for us to enjoy, and the fire in the fireplace was a central fixture in our holiday celebrations. While we didn’t need the fire for heat, there is still something warm and comforting about gathering around a fire, and I loved watching the fire flicker and dance as it burned the logs.
This time of year, near the Winter Solstice in the Northern Hemisphere, many cultures and religions have celebrations that focus on lights—such as candles, lamps, bonfires, and fires in fireplaces—that bring light to the longest nights of the year. One tradition, attributed to the Norse, that spread through much of Europe and North America, was that of burning the Yule log.
The Yule log is both one of the most widely spread holiday traditions and one of the oldest, documented as early as 1184. Scholars attribute it to pre-Christian origins; most attribute it to the Norse, though its origins are murky and some attribute it to the Anglo-Saxons or even to the Germanic peoples in general which include both the Norse and the Anglo Saxons. Either way, as people converted to Christianity, Yule logs continued as a Christmas tradition through the middle ages to today.
Where did the tradition of Yule Logs start?
The earliest known Yule log was either a huge log or possibly an entire tree. It was ceremoniously chosen, cut, brought into the house, and placed with one end placed in the fireplace. This Yule log would burn continuously for the entire 12 days of Yule, as it was bad luck to have to relight the Yule log. After the 12 days of Yule ( now often Christmas) were over, the family kept either the ashes and/or what remained of the log throughout the following year to provide good luck.
More recently, instead of using a whole tree as the Yule log, a large log was used and either cut into chunks that were burned each night for 12 nights or the log was burned from Christmas eve night to Christmas morning. Depending on the nation, different types of wood are preferred for the Yule log. The English prefer oak, the Scottish birch, and the French cherry.
In some countries, the remnants the ashes of the Yule log were thought to protect from lightning strikes, evil spirits, ill health, housefires, and other misfortunes. These remnants were then used the following Christmas to light the next year’s Yule log. In parts of England, on Christmas Eve the youngest child present would light special candles from the Yule log and all present would make a silent wish.
The changes in Yule Log traditions today.
Today, with central heating, it is impractical for most of us to burn a Yule log. And yet, tradition triumphs. Those who can often burn a single log burned in a fireplace or outdoors in a brazier. Some even still tend the fire on the Solstice all night long, bringing in the new dawn.
By the early 20th century, the wooden log was replaced with a cake in the shape of a log, particularly in France, Belgium, and Switzerland. This cake typically is made of alternating layers of yellow sponge cake and chocolate buttercream frosting rolled into a cylinder, and then iced again on the outside and decorated to look like a log.
Modern technology allows people to enjoy the Yule log tradition in new ways.
In 1966 in New York, Fred Thrower came up with the idea to broadcast a looping video of a burning log on his local television station. This allowed New Yorkers the enjoyment of a virtual burning Yule log, which would otherwise be difficult in their urban homes. This proved to be a huge success and eventually was aired on cable networks as well. Today you can also watch the Yule Log burning in a continual video loop on YouTube.
However you celebrate the shortest day of the year, we at the Researcher’s Gateway wish you warmth, light, and luck in the days to come.
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