A brief history of a bizarre Christmas tradition
A walk through the aisles of a grocery store during the holiday season is always filled with delectable treats centered around various Christmas traditions. One such item that has always intrigued me has been the Yule Log. A log. That you eat. Why in the Charles Dickens would you want to eat a log? Well, it turns out this tradition dates back thousands of years and here’s what it’s all about…
The Yule Log tradition appeared thousands of years ago in ancient Celtic/Scandinavian/Germanic tribes celebrating the Winter Solstice. They would find a giant tree trunk and set it on fire on the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. This pagan tradition was to celebrate re-birth and these ancient people thought by burning certain types of trees such as elm, oak, beech and cherry trees it would help bring about mystical good luck in the days to come after the solstice.
During the time of these ancient celebrations both December and January were called Guili or “Yule”, and it was when this magical log was burned, one could count on a return of both light and heat from the sun’s rays.
Like most pagan traditions, they were quashed when Christianity took over, but then adopted by Christianity to fit into the agenda of the Catholic Church. The Yule Log celebration was no exception and in the 12th century the ceremony became Christian-ified with families hauling home huge logs with the youngest sibling riding it home, who brought good fortune and luck for the coming season. Once home, the medieval families would burn the massive log to bring positive future outcomes for all that were present.
The tradition carried on through the centuries and in the 1800’s the Yule log was recorded in “Christmas Observances” by J.B. Partridge with the following ritual as the proper way to celebrate the Yule Log:
•The Yule log is brought in, 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.
•Just before supper on Christmas Eve 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.
As time moved on, large log burning fireplaces in the family home gave way to smaller hearths and so the Yule Logs got smaller. Then as we moved into the 20th century, fireplaces were replaced by furnaces and stoves, requiring the tradition to adapt once again. This time a smaller Yule Log was placed on the dinner table and candles places on top of the log surrounded by candies and treats that were handed out on Christmas Eve.
Soon the traditional real wooden table log was replaced by a cake log, which is our current incarnation of this ancient pagan ritual. The cake log is usually covered in chocolate icing and scraped with a fork to resemble the tree bark.
One of the last places to celebrate the real Yule Log was in Quebec so it is no surprise that most Yule Log cakes are produced by Quebec companies such as Vachon, who continue the tradition with their own version of the Yule Log that you see in the grocery store aisles. Both Dairy Queen and Baskin Robbins also offer Yule Logs as ice cream logs that probably should not be lit on fire.
So there you have it, the history of the Yule Log, once an ancient pagan tradition of setting fire to a giant log to worship the sun that has now evolved into a cake you eat and wash down with a glass of egg nog…egg nog…now there’s another story…what is nog?
Interesting tradition, though the best Yule Log cake is the one you make yourself not the store bought type.
I would dearly love a yule log either real or confectionary.
Delightful Heritage that I also believe the Celts maintained in their ceremonies. Thank you for this timely Post !!
Merry Christmas to you Andrew. I really enjoy your articles. I’ve learned so much about Ottawa. This is special to me because I was born and raised here and still reside in this beautiful city.
New Years Day and just catching up on my emails. You are inspiring me to make a Yule Log next Christmas. Thank you!