Blog by Linda Wallace
A Yule log is a large and extremely hard log which is burned in the hearth as a part of traditional Yule or Christmas celebrations in several European cultures. The Yule log was originally an entire tree, that was carefully chosen and brought into the house with great ceremony with the purpose being to provide maximum warmth and endurance. In some European traditions, the largest end of the log would be placed into the fire hearth while the rest of the tree stuck out into the room.
On or about Christmas eve, a big log was brought into a home or large hall. It would be made of a strong, hard wood that would burn all night. Decorated with leaves and ribbons, it was lit by the youngest and the oldest family members after being blessed by the head of the family with oil, brandy or sometimes with a branch that had been dipped in holy water. Songs were sung and stories told. Children danced. Offerings of food and wine and decorations were placed upon it. Personal faults, mistakes and bad choices were burned in the flame so everyone’s new year would start with a clean slate. The log was never allowed to burn completely, a bit was kept in the house to start next year’s log. The ashes were then saved because they would protect the home from lightening and the devil in the upcoming year. The log brought good luck. Any pieces that were kept protected a house from fire, or lightning, or hail. Ashes of the log would be placed in wells to keep the water good. Ashes were also placed at the roots of fruit trees and vines to help them bear a good harvest.
The log also predicted bad luck. If the fire went out before the night was through, tragedy would strike the home in the coming year. If its flame cast someone’s shadow without a head, supposedly that person would die within the year.
The burning of the Yule log marked the beginning of Christmas celebrations. In Appalachia, as long as the log, or “backstick” burned you could celebrate. Often a very large “backstick” was chosen and soaked in a stream to ensure a nice long celebration. In the early nineteenth century, American slaves didn’t have to work as long as the Yule log burned, so they would choose the biggest, greenest log they could find. If they did have to work while it burned their master had to pay them for the work.
In England the log was supposed to burn for the twelve days of Christmas, from Christmas eve on December 24th to Epiphany on January 6th. Some English Yule logs were large enough that a team of horses were required to drag it to the castle or manor. Some English preferred a log from an ash tree. In the Slavic and other countries oak was the wood of choice. Almost everywhere, the fire was started with that bit of the last year’s log, to symbolize continuity and the eternal light of heaven.
The origins of the Yule Log can be traced back to the Midwinter festivals in which the Norsemen indulged…nights filled with feasting, “drinking Yule” and watching the fire leap around the log burning in the home hearth. The ceremonies and beliefs associated with the Yule Log’s sacred origins are closely linked to representations of health, fruitfulness and productivity.
At first, burning a Yule log was a celebration of the winter solstice. In Scandinavia, Yule ran from several weeks before the winter solstice to a couple weeks after. This was the darkest time of year, and the people celebrated because days would start getting longer after the solstice. There was quite a bit of ritual and ceremony tied to the Yule log, for it marked the sun’s rebirth from its southern reaches. The Yule log gets its name from the Scandinavian tradition, but the ritual burning of a special log during winter solstice took place as far west as Ireland, as far south as Greece, and as far north as Siberia.
In Yugoslavia, the Yule Log was cut just before dawn on Christmas Eve and carried into the house at twilight. The wood itself was decorated with flowers, colored silks and gold, and then doused with wine and an offering of grain.
To all European races, the Yule Log was believed to bring beneficial magic and was kept burning for at least twelve hours and sometimes as long as twelve days, warming both the house and those who resided within. When the fire of the Yule Log was finally quenched, a small fragment of the wood would be saved and used to light the next year’s log. It was also believed that as long as the Yule Log burned, the house would be protected from witchcraft. The ashes that remained from the sacred Yule Log were scattered over fields to bring fertility, or cast into wells to purify and sweeten the water. Sometimes, the ashes were used in the creation of various charms…to free cattle from vermin, for example, or to ward off hailstorms.
However, the tradition had disappeared by the end of the 19th century because the large fireplaces were replaced by smaller, iron stoves. The big log was substituted by a small one that was decorated with candles and greenery and used as the centerpiece on the Christmas table. Today’s Yule logs are often cakes in the shape of a log, and add a very festive touch to the holidays!