The History of the Yule Log
The tradition of yule logs has its roots in pagan rituals. In fact, the word “yule” is old English for a festival known to take place in December and January. Northern Europeans, like Vikings, celebrated the Festival of Yule to honor the winter solstice by journeying into the woods in search of a hearty oak tree. The event was a family affair, with family members venturing out in search of a choice cut of wood. They would return with the most robust log they could find and burn it in deference to various gods as well as in celebration of life and prosperity.
The custom of burning the Yule Log goes back to, and before, medieval times. It was originally a Nordic tradition. Yule is the name of the old Winter Solstice festivals in Scandinavia and other parts of northern Europe, such as Germany.
The Yule Log was originally an entire tree, that was carefully chosen and brought into the house with great ceremony. The largest end of the log would be placed into the fire hearth while the rest of the tree stuck out into the room! The log would be lit from the remains of the previous year’s log which had been carefully stored away and slowly fed into the fire through the Twelve Days of Christmas. It was considered important that the re-lighting process was carried out by someone with clean hands. Nowadays, of course, most people have central heating so it is very difficult to burn a tree!
Ultimately, the yule log was thought to determine a person’s good or bad luck, and there are many variations on this superstition. One European belief held that the log had to catch fire on the first attempt to light it, lest all the inhabitants of the home where it burned suffer bad luck. Another stated that the remains of a log must be kept for the following year’s ceremony for good luck, which would extend across successive generations. The ashes were sometimes stored under a bed in order to make a home immune to evil spirits and lightning strikes. English Christmas traditions called for the yule log to burn as a sign of goodwill through all Twelve Days of Christmas, during which time family members would refrain from labor to celebrate the season
In Provence (France), it is traditional that the whole family helps to cut the log down and that a little bit is burnt each night. If any of the log is left after Twelfth Night, it is kept safe in the house until the next Christmas to protect against lightning! In some parts of Holland, this was also done, but the log had to be stored under a bed! In some eastern European countries, the log was cut down on Christmas Eve morning and lit that evening.
In Cornwall (in the UK), the log is called ‘The Mock’. The log is dried out and then the bark is taken off it before it comes into the house to be burnt. Also in the UK, barrel makers (or Coopers as barrel makers were traditionally called) gave their customers old logs that they could not use for making barrels for Yule logs. (My surname is Cooper, but I don’t make barrels! My Great Grandfather did own a walking stick factory though!)
The custom of the Yule Log spread all over Europe and different kids of wood are used in different countries. In England, Oak is traditional; in Scotland, it is Birch; while in France, it’s Cherry. Also, in France, the log is sprinkled with wine, before it is burnt, so that it smells nice when it is lit.
In Devon and Somerset in the UK, some people have a very large bunch of Ash twigs instead of the log. This comes from a local legend that Joseph, Mary and Jesus were very cold when the shepherds found them on Christmas Night. So the shepherds got some bunches of twigs to burn in order to keep them warm.
In some parts of Ireland, people have a large candle instead of a log and this is only lit on New Year’s Eve and Twelfth Night.
Different chemicals can be sprinkled on the log like wine to make the log burn with different colored flames!
- Potassium Nitrate = Violet
- Barium Nitrate = Apple Green
- Borax = Vivid Green
- Copper Sulfate = Blue
- Table Salt = Bright Yellow
This sounds very dangerous, so please only try this out with some adult supervision!!
The ashes of Yule logs were meant to be very good for plants. This is true, because the ash from burnt wood contains a lot of ‘potash’, which helps plants flower. But if you throw the ashes out on Christmas day it was supposedly very unlucky!
But France isn’t the only place that has adapted the concept of the yule log. Urban areas, like New York City, have high-density populations, and, as a result, space is at a minimum. Therefore, fireplaces are a rare commodity in apartments and condominiums. In 1966, New York City television programming director Fred Thrower had an idea for log-deprived New Yorkers. Thrower had his local station, WPIX-TV, broadcast a looping video of a blazing fireplace — with Christmas music playing in the background — beginning on Christmas Eve. The broadcast, designed to provide city-dwellers with holiday ambiance they might otherwise lack, was an instant success and became a Christmas morning mainstay on the New York station. It began airing on national cable networks, and in high-definition, in 2004
While a proper yule log isn’t a common sight in 21st-century fireplaces, it can be found in holiday kitchens — in the form of a dessert. Bûche de Nöel is of French origin and is a sponge cake replica of a yule log. It comes in flavors like chocolate and gingerbread and is frosted in a wood-grain pattern.
It’s believed that the dessert was created in response to French families who didn’t have a fireplace for a real yule log in their homes but wanted to share in the holiday tradition . Yule log cakes are readily available in French bakeries, but many residents in the United States must make their own version of the delicacy from scratch.
A Chocolate Yule Log or ‘bûche de Noël’ is now a popular Christmas desert or pudding. It’s traditionally eaten in France and Belgium, where they are known as ‘Kerststronk’ in Flemish.
They are made of a chocolate sponge roll layered with cream. The outside is covered with chocolate or chocolate icing and decorated to look like a bark-covered log. Some people like to add extra decorations such as marzipan mushrooms!