Have you ever took a few minutes and wondered why we have a Yule Log on Christmas? Where did this Christmas tradition originate from and what exactly is a Yule Log? Unlike some other unusual Christmas traditions like decorating our homes or churches with poinsettias, a south Mexican plant, the concept of burning a piece of firewood on a cold holiday night is not a strange concept to accept.
Nonetheless, homes around the world burn a traditional Yule Log year after year at Christmas time. Funny enough, WPIX a television station in our area, broadcasts a Yule Log burning program on Christmas Day every year since 1966. Anyway with all that being said, this article is going to show you the history of one of our beloved Christmas traditions, the Yule Log.
What is a Yule Log?
The Yule Log was originally an entire tree that was chosen with particular care and brought into homes with great joy and ritual. Depending upon what country you are in will change the type of tree chosen. In England the traditional tree is Oak. In Scotland, they use a Birch and in France their traditional tree is Cherry.
The largest end of the tree was placed into the homes fire hearth while the rest of the tree just stuck out into the rest of the room. Keep in mind that back in the ancient times, people homes were not designed as ours are today. There were no family rooms, kitchens, dens and separate bedrooms. Most of the homes during that time period were just one giant room or two. So having a giant log stick out from your fireplace and into your room was not an usual sight to behold.
In France and Belgium, the Yule Log is also a traditional Christmas time dessert. Unfortunately, there is no historical data to show when or how this dessert made its first appearance. However it is shown to exist by the year 1945. The Yule Log dessert is a sponge cake that is rolled up into a log shape. The log is then covered in chocolate and decorated to look like bark on a tree. It is said that some Yule Logs in France have one end cut so that people can see the “rings” of the log and some are even decorated with marzipan mushrooms for added effect.
Origins of the Tradition
While there are many theories as to how this tradition made its way into our homes, there is some common ground that these theories all share.
The first commonality is that this is a Nordic pagan tradition from the 6th or even 7th century. The burning of the log was a part of their old Winter Solstice festivals in Scandinavia, Germany and other parts of northern Europe.
Yule was the name given to their Winter Solstice festivals and was a time of great celebration for the pagans. Many of their festivities during the Winter Solstice included feasts, giving of gifts, singing of songs, bringing evergreen shrubs into their homes and the burning of Yule Logs. In fact, the Winter Solstice and the pagans give us many of our Christmas time traditions that we love and enjoy today. If you like to know some more information about the Winter Solstice, I invite you read my article Why is Christmas on December 25th.
Yule Log Customs around the World
As mentioned earlier, the next commonality of this tradition is that there is a custom that is followed when bringing the logs into the homes. Although the information regarding the customs is limited, here are two customs that we do know about.
The first one comes from Great Britain and it is written by clergyman Robert Herrick. Herrick states that the Yule Log was to be brought into the home by a group of men and that they were to be rewarded with a glass of beer for their efforts. The log was then to be lit with the remnants of last year’s log. The remnants are of last year’s log are to be kept in effort to bring good luck throughout the year. Using last year’s log remnants was renewing that good luck.
In Bulgaria, a young man of the family was to put on his best cloths and cut down an oak tree. Before the young man cut down the tree, he was to offer a prayer of forgiveness. The log was then to be carried upon his right shoulder and was not allowed to touch the ground on his return trip. Before the young man brings the log into the home he is to ask the homeowners three time, “do you glorify the young God?” Three time the homeowners are to answer, “we glorify him, welcome.” When the log is brought into the home, the family drills a hole into one end and fills it with wine, cooking oil and incense. The log is then wrapped in white linen before being lit in the fireplace.
As mentioned above, in France and Belgium, the Yule Log is a traditional dessert in the shape of a log and decorated to look as such. The theory behind this French tradition is due to part to a lack of large fireplaces being built into the homes. I happen to disagree with that theory because wood burning was and is still a significant means to their central heating. However be that as it may, it is still quite a delicious dessert if you have never tried it.
How the Yule Log made its way into our Homes
OK, so we have some common cords about burning a log and how to bring it into your home. However, that still does not explain much. What you need to understand is that the secret of this tradition lies in its pagan origins which have been adopted by people over the centuries and they never really knew it.
In my article Why is Christmas on December 25th, we read about Caesar Flavius Constantine who used the Council of Nicea to settle all things regarding Christianity. Constantine wanted to convert all the pagans to Christianity and he thought that the best way to do it was to have the pagans and Christians all celebrate similar holidays on the same day. The pagans Day of the Unconquered Sun was merged with the birthday of Jesus, God’s unconquered son.
As such, certain traditions of the pagans became incorporated into Christian traditions. For example take the tradition of Christmas trees and garland. Both of these items were present during the pagans Winter Solstice festivals because they represented everlasting life during a time of darkness. The birth of Jesus for us Christians represents God’s gift of giving us everlasting life through salvation in Jesus.
What can We learn from this Tradition
I never like to end an article about a Christmas tradition without showing how we can use it to teach our family and friends about God’s love for us. Here is the teaching point that you can drive home to them.
The burning of logs in the fireplace during the Winter Solstice gave the pagans light and warmth in the dark and cold days surrounding them. Jesus is the light of the world and his warmth is his never ending love that he showed us on the cross. So at this coming Christmas, please share with your family and friends the importance of God’s love and how the Yule log plays it part.