Pagan Scandinavians, in a centuries old tradition, burned a large log or tree as part of the winter solstice festival.
This particular celebration was named Jol and pronounced Yule. It was named after Jolmir, one of the names of the god Odin. The celebration was considered important to the health and prosperity of those who participated, and it represented the new light and warmth that awaited them in the spring. The log they burned was meant to replace the brightness and heat that came from the sun and was known as the burning of the Yule log.
In the fourth century, Pope Julius I declared Christmas was to be observed on Dec. 25. It was an effort by the Roman Catholic Church to circumvent pagan practices long associated with the winter solstice and stamp out the excesses of the Roman Saturnalia, a period of revelry, feasting and gift giving.
The pope’s plan did not work as intended. Rather than ending the pagan traditions, people simply folded them into the new Christian holiday. Christians in northern Europe kept the old Yule log festival, and by the 16th century newly converted Christians used variations of the Yule log burning to represent the fight between good and evil as the fire grew hotter and brighter until it was consumed and only ashes remained. It symbolized Christ’s ultimate and final victory over the sins of mankind.
One of the popular renditions started with cutting an appropriate Yule log. It was considered a misfortune if the log was purchased. As it was joyfully pulled to someone’s hearth, many people followed along the way and sang old carols. There were pretty large hearths in those days so a large, long-burning log was selected.
The large end of the log was placed within the fireplace with the smaller end stuck out away from the fire. It was decorated and wine poured over the top. It was then lit using the remains of last year’s log, which had been stored under the homeowner’s bed.
The belief was placing a remnant of the Yule log under the bed protected the home from fire and lightning. Placing it there also represented life itself and the eternal light of heaven.
Clean hands were required to light the Yule log because dirty hands meant the disrespecting of God. A failure to light it correctly on the first try placed the family at a great risk of misfortune in the coming year. The family and their friends gathered around the fire and told stories, made merry and observed the shadows on the wall. If a shadow had no head, it was thought there would be a death in the family within a year.
As people made their way to bed in some localities food and wine was left on the table for the ghosts of the Yuletide. Early the next morning the remains of the log were snuffed out and saved for the next year.
The people of the United Kingdom took their log from the barrel makers’ (coopers) discarded leftovers. Such logs were not fit to produce barrel staves. They were referred to as mock Yule logs and usually the bark was stripped off. They were usually made of oak and were supposed to burn for the 12 days of Christmas, and then the log was extinguished.
In Spain, a hollow log was selected with legs sticking out and called the “Tio de Nadal” (a Christmas log in Catalan mythology). Beginning on Dec. 8, children placed a red hat along with a smiley face and a blanket on the log. They fed it with nuts, dried fruit and water until Dec. 24 when the children beat it with sticks until little tasty goodies were forced out. This was known as a Christmas piñata.
France had a different custom. The Yule log was paraded around the house three times and wine poured on it for a a blessing before lighting.
As large fireplaces were replaced with smaller heating devices, the large Yule logs capable of burning for 12 days were impractical. Starting around 1700, a pastry that resembled a Yule log was introduced as a substitute for actually burning a log. There are many recipes for Yule logs that are a centerpiece for the Christmas table and furnish quite a delicate taste to those who partake.
As times changed, the idea of how to incorporate a Yule log into Christmas varied with each household. Our family never used an edible Yule log or a log for a piñata, but we did have a Yule log occasionally.
We saved a nice shaped and large piece of hard wood capable of burning for several hours. As it burned, we enjoyed the season while singing Christmas songs, playing games and drinking punch.
It always seemed that log had special colored flames to watch and a few flying sparks that popped out as it burned very hot. We did not observe the shadows on the wall like in olden times, and the last to bed made sure it wasn’t sparking any more so it did not start a fire on our rug. We definitely did not put the charred and unburned portion under the bed.
Fireplaces are special at family gatherings and a few people still partake of the edible log thus furthering a Christmas tradition.