The tradition of Yule Log is merely observed in central and northern Europe, though it hasn’t bypassed the US entirely.
You may have seen desserts resembling a log covered in berries and leaves in local bakeries or heard of Yule Log festivals in some US states.
Like many other Christmas traditions, the history of the Yule Log stems from pagan times.
The custom could have originated in the UK, Germany, or Scandinavia, as all these counties used to celebrate the Yule winter solstice festival.
The modern Yule Log tradition involves burning down a log on Christmas Eve to attract good luck and is associated with beacons guiding the Christ child.
But centuries before Christmas appeared, Yule Log symbolized the sun and the soon arrival of spring.
Depending on the region, the ceremony of burning the Yule Log may differ.
In some countries, people blessed the log with wine and prayer before burning it; in others, the log is ritually smeared with animal blood or dragged through the entire village.
In the US, the Yule Log tradition doesn’t contain any rituals or ceremonies.
However, people often write their wishes on pieces of paper to burn them together with the log and eat the Yule Log cake.
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What Is a Yule Log
As the name suggests, a Yule Log is a log that’s burned at Christmas time. Before Christmas even existed, Yule Logs were burned during other winter festivals.
Initially, it was an entire tree rather than a piece of it. It was brought into the house with great care, followed by a special ceremony.
One end of the tree was placed into the fire while another was sticking out into the room.
The tree was lit using the remains of the previous year’s Yule Log. As the tree was usually too large to be burned at once, it was gradually fed into the fire during the Twelve Days of Christmas.
Of course, nowadays, cutting down an entire tree isn’t as straightforward. It’s prohibited in some areas due to rapid deforestation.
Plus, most people today have central heating, and burning a tree would make the house temperature too high.
Yule Log Origins
Yule Log tradition likely originated in Nordic or Germanic countries. In pagan times, people in Scandinavia and Germany celebrated the winter solstice festival called Yule.
The word Yule is derived from Old English “geola,” meaning “jolly.” The festival was also sometimes called Yuletide, meaning “jolly time.”
Today, Christmas is often called the same way in Scandinavia. However, other etymologists believe that the word originated from the Norse word “hweol,” meaning “wheel,” as a sun symbol.
However, gathering historical evidence from pagan times isn’t simple. While historians speculate the tradition has appeared in Scandinavia, the first written reference dates only to the 17th century.
English historian Henry Bourne, who lived in the 18th century, thought that the tradition had Anglo-Saxon paganism origins.
In 1725, Henry Bourne wrote:
“Our Fore-Fathers, when the common Devices of Eve were over, and Night was come on, were wont to light up Candles of an uncommon Size, which were called Christmas-Candles, and to lay a Log of Wood upon the Fire, which they termed a Yule-Clog or Christmas-Block.”
Henry Bourne also has an explanation for Yule Log’s name:
“For as both December and January were called Guili or Yule, upon Account of the Sun’s Returning, and the Increase of the Days; so, I am apt to believe, the Log has had the Name of the Yule-Log, from its being burnt as an Emblem of the returning Sun, and the Increase of its Light and Heat.”
Some things we know for sure. During the winter solstice, the Yule festival was held in different Central and Northern European regions on about the same dates as modern Christmas.
It was the time to feast, drink, and celebrate the soon arrival of spring. The Yule Log symbolized the heat and light of the sun and eternal life.
Yule Log in the UK
As the tradition of burning Yule Log could have an Anglo-Saxon origin, it’s no wonder it’s still widely observed in the UK.
The traditional tree for Yule Log in the UK is oak. But depending on the county, the customs may differ slightly.
For instance, in Cornwall, the Yule Log is called The Mock. The bark must be removed from the log before it’s brought into the house.
In Devon and Somerset, people commonly burn a large batch of twigs rather than a log.
This variation of Yule Log custom stems from a Biblical legend. When Mary and Joseph were cold, shepherds who found them brought them some Ash twigs to make fire.
J. B. Partridge, in his book “Christmas Observances,” has recorded a local Yorkshire custom from the early 20th century.
People at that time didn’t buy the log but instead received it from someone else. Then, the log was put into the fire all at once and wasn’t removed until it was entirely burnt.
Following the same custom, people in Yorkshire used to tell ghost stories and play cards. There, two large candles were lit up from the Yule Log by the youngest family member.
During this process, everyone remained silent. No other lights could be lit up until the two candles were completely burnt down.
A similar custom from Yorkshire was recorded by H. J. Rose in 1923. A piece of Yule Log was always saved until the following year.
Then, in the morning, something green was brought into the house before anything could be taken out.
Yule Log in the UK had various names. It was commonly called Yule Block, Yule Clog, or Gule Block. Variations such as Boncyff Nadolig and Blocyn y Gwyliau were found in Wales and Bloc na Nollaig in Ireland.
Yule Log in France
The French name for Yule Log is Bûche de Noël. In the Provence region, the custom is still widely known under the name Cacho Fio, translating as “blessing of the log.”
Following an ancient tradition, the log of a fruit tree, usually cherry, is carried around the house three times by the eldest family member. It’s then blessed with wine and burnt.
Another French tradition associated with Yule Log involves hiding gifts under it. Of course, in this case, the log isn’t burned until the gifts are opened.
Yule Log in Other Regions
Some European regions have slightly different traditions involving logs. For example, in Baltic states, a ritual of log pulling is widely observed.
People drag a log through the entire village and then burn it. However, the custom isn’t common in cities.
Serbian people also burn a Yule Log. In the early 19th century, German folklorist Jacob Grimm has noticed the connection between the Yule Log and the Slavic tradition of Badnjak.
Badnjak is a young tree burnt on Christmas Eve. Sometimes, the tree was smeared with animal blood as a sacrifice.
In the Catalonia region, people would burn down Tio, a magic smiling log. But, before burning it, children beat it with sticks – poor Tio.
Is Yule Log a Thing in the US
The tradition of burning the Yule Log isn’t as popular in the US as in some European regions. However, historical evidence suggests the custom was observed here, too.
In 1947, Robert Meyer Jr. recorded that the annual Yule Log burning was held in Colorado since 1934. Meyer states that the ceremony started with the Yule Log hunt and ended with drinking hot wine near the fire.
However, it isn’t clear what was meant by “hunt” – people likely went to the forest to search for a log themselves rather than buying it.
Yule Log festivals are held in numerous US regions. For instance, the Board’s Head and Yule Log Festival in Southern Ohio has been held since 1939 and to this day. A similar festival can be attended in Kentucky, Louisville.
However, most people celebrate Christmas at home, so you can make a Yule Log yourself. Nowadays, people often write their wishes on a piece of paper and place it into the log before burning it down.
You can also sprinkle the log with chemicals to give the fire a specific color.
So, potassium nitrate will make the flames purple, barium nitrate or borax – green, copper sulfate – blue, and regular salt – vivid yellow. Of course, this shouldn’t be done by children without adult supervision.
Sweet Yule Log
Another modern Yule Log tradition observed across Europe, and the US, is making a sweet Yule Log roulette.
The dessert was invented in France and is originally called Bûche de Noël. The cake’s history dates to the early 19th century.
The Yule Log dessert is pretty much a Swiss roll; the only difference is the appearance. It’s a chocolate sponge with vanilla or chocolate cream layers covered with chocolate icing.
The roulette is meant to resemble a log, so decorations typically involve leaves, berries, mushrooms, and other nature-inspired elements made from marzipan or chocolate. Sometimes, the icing surface is textured to resemble a tree.
Not everyone has a fireplace or a backyard to burn down a Yule Log. In this case, a Yule Log cake is a great alternative.
It’s a perfect DIY-friendly Christmas dessert, but it can also be commonly found in bakeries, especially in Canada.
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