THE YULE LOG – ORIGINS AND TRADITIONS

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yule-log

THE YULE LOG – ORIGINS AND TRADITIONS

The tradition of the Yule log has a long and interesting history. Even though the Yule log is not a common part of modern-day Christmas celebrations in the U.S., it’s still interesting to see where this tradition got its start and how it evolved throughout the centuries. In fact, if it were up to me, the tradition of the Yule log would be brought back in full force. Wondering what the Yule log tradition is? I’ll let you in on the secret…

The tradition of the Yule log spans millennia and actually precedes Christianity. Peasants used to burn a yule log on the Winter Solstice in December. The Winter Solstice is the day of the year with the shortest amount of daylight. The peasants hoped to keep evil spirits away by burning the Yule log, which they presumed might come because of the prolonged darkness of the Winter Solstice.

The Yule log was frequently associated with winter celebrations until Christianity became widespread. As Christianity grew, the yule log became more commonly associated with Christmas celebrations and Christianity adopted the Yule log tradition. For centuries, Christians cut their own yule logs at Christmas time or they would try to find a yule log to burn. During the 1700s and 1800s, it was a regular Christmas tradition for men to go an expedition to find a yule log. Many European countries had somewhat different traditions surrounding the Yule log, but a Yule log was burned either in the days preceding Christmas or possibly on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day.

The yule log was such an integral part of Christmas celebrations for centuries that it is hard to understand why it is virtually nonexistent in the United States. My only guess is electricity. Many homes don’t have fireplaces anymore and some of us are not accustomed to dealing with indoor fires, nor do many have the facilities to do so.

Because the yule log is not very popular anymore in the U.S., it’s hard to imagine that this tradition will ever be revived. Unless, of course, some company markets an electric yule log (are you listening you entrepreneurial types?). It’s hard to think of an adequate replacement of this dying tradition, but learning a bit about the history of the yule log is certainly warming and fitting as Christmas approaches.

Yule Log, Yule Llog, or Christmas Knock is a specially selected log burnt on a hearth around the period of Christmas in a number of countries in  Europe. The origin of the folk custom is unclear. Numerous scholars have observed that, like other traditions associated with Yule (such as the Yule boar); the custom may ultimately derive from Germanic paganism. Similar folk practices are recorded in various areas of Europe.

According to the Encyclopedia of English Folklore, the first “clear” references to the tradition appear in the 17th century, and thus it is unclear where or when the custom extends.

However, it has long been observed that the custom may have much earlier origins, possibly extending from or echoing customs observed in Germanic paganism. As early as 1725, Henry Bourne sought an origin for the Yule log in Anglo-Saxon paganism:

Our Fore-Fathers, when the common Devious 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. These were to Illuminate the House, and turn the Night into Day; which custom, in some Measure, is still kept up in the Northern Parts. It hath, in all probability, been derived from the Saxons. For Bede tells us, that this very Night was observed in this Land before, by the Heathen Saxons. They began, says he, their Year on the Eight of the Calenders of January, which is now our Christmas Party: And the very Night before, which is now Holy to us, was by them called Maedrenack, or the Night of the Mothers. The Yule-Clog therefore hath probably been a Part of those Ceremonies which were perform’d that Night’s Ceremonies. It seems to have been used, as an Emblem of the return of the Sun, and the lengthening of the Days. 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. This was probably the Reason of the custom among the Heathen Saxons; but I cannot think the Observation of it was continued for the same Reason, after Christianity was embraced. …”

Communal bon-bons with feasting and jollification have a pagan root—ritual bonfires at the beginning of November once signaled the start of another year and the onset of winter. Their subsequent incorporation into the Christian calendar, to become part and parcel of the festival of Christmas, and, later, their association with the New Year (January 1st) is an intriguing story. Many, if not all, of the various customs and traditions at one time extensively witnessed at Christmas and the ‘old’ New Year stem from this common source, e.g. Twelfth Night bonfires, including ‘Old Meg’ from Worcestershire and burning the bush from Herefordshire, first footing, etc. … Any traces of primitive ritual such as scattering of burnt ashes or embers as an omen of fertilisation or purification have long since disappeared.

The events of Yule are generally held to have centered on Mid-winter (although specific dating is a matter of debate), and feasting, drinking, and sacrifice were involved. Scholar Rudolf Simek comments that the pagan Yule feast “had a pronounced religious character” and comments that “it is uncertain whether the Germanic Yule feast still had a function in the cult of the dead and in the veneration of the ancestors, a function which the mid-winter sacrifice certainly held for the West European Stone and Bronze Ages.” The traditions of the Yule log, Yule goat, Yule boar (Sonargoltr) still reflected in the Christmas ham, Yule singing, and others stem from Yule customs, and customs which Simek takes as “indicating the significance of the feast in pre-Christian times.”

The Yule log is recorded in the folklore archives of much of England, but particularly in collections covering the West Country and the North Country. For example, in his section regarding “Christmas Observances”, J. B. Partridge recorded then-current (1914) Christmas customs in Yorkshire, Britain involving the Yule log as related by “Mrs. Day, Minchinhampton, a native of Swaledale”. The custom is as follows:

The Yule log is generally given, and is at once put on the hearth. It is unlucky to have to light it again after it has once been started, and it ought not go out until it has burned away.

To sit around the Yule log and tell ghost stories is a great thing to do on this night, also card-playing.

To large colored candles are a Christmas present from the grocery. Just before supper on Christmas Eve (where furmety is eaten), while the Yule log is burning, all other lights are put out, and the candles are lighted from the Yule log by the youngest person present. While they are being lighted, all are silent and wish. The wish must not be told, but you see if you get it during the year. As soon as the candles are on the table, silence may be broken. They must be allowed to burn themselves out, and no other lights may be lighted that night.

  1. J. Rose records a similar folk belief from Killinghall, Yorkshire in 1923: “In the last generation the Yule log was still burned, and a piece of it saved to light the next year’s log. On Christmas morning something green, a leaf or the like, was brought into the house before anything was taken out.”

The Yule log is also attested as a custom present elsewhere in the English speaking world, such as the United States. Robert Meyer, Jr. records in 1947 that a “Yule-Log Ceremony” in Palmer Lake, Colorado had occurred since 1934. Meyer Jr. describes the custom: “It starts with the yule log hunt and is climaxed by drinking of wassail around the fire.”

Similarities have been observed between the custom of the ashenfaggot, recorded solely in the West Country of England. First recorded at the beginning of the 19th century and occurring up until at least 2003 in some areas, the ashen faggot is burnt on Christmas Eve, is associated with a variety of folk beliefs, and is “made of smaller ash sticks bound into a faggot with strips of hazel, withy, or bramble”. G. R. Wiley observes that the ashen faggot may have developed out of the Yule log.

As early as Jacob Grimm in the early 19th century, scholars have observed parallels in the South Slavic custom of the Badnjak and the Yule log tradition. As observed by M. E. Durham (1940), the Badnjak is a long young tree is placed on the hearth on Christmas Eve. Varying customs involving the Badnjak may be performed, such as smearing it with fowl blood or goat blood and the ashes may be “strewn on the fields or garden to promote fertility on New Year’s Eve”.

Kathy Kiefer

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