In past eras many European people burned Yule logs in their homes at Christmas time. Often these enormous logs burned throughout the TWELVE DAYS OF CHRISTMAS. The many customs and beliefs associated with these logs suggest that at one time they were thought to have magical powers. According to a variety of folk beliefs, a burning Yule log or its charred remains could not only protect a household from evil powers, but also confer health, fertility, luck, and abundance.
Many writers trace the Yule log back to the ancient pagan holiday of YULE. Although little can be determined for certain regarding the early history of this celebration, most authors agree that it included the burning of great bonfires. The earliest historical record mentioning a Yule log for the fireplace, however, comes from medieval GERMANY. German documents from this time contain a number of references to such logs. At least one writer traces the French Yule log back to a medieval tax that required peasants to bring an enormous log to the local manor house each year on Christmas Eve (see also CHRISTMAS IN EUROPE).
In ENGLAND, however, the custom can only be traced back as far as the seventeenth century. The English had a number of names for the logs, including Yule log, Yule clog, Christmas log, and Christmas block. The English poet Robert Herrick (1591-1674) wrote a poem in which he described the customs and beliefs surrounding the Yule log in Devonshire, England. Herrick’s householders lit their “Christmas log” using a fragment of the previous year’s log. Moreover, they serenaded the burning log with music in order to coax good luck and abundance from it. Lines from another of Herrick’s poems advised that the singed remains of the Yule log could protect the household against evil during the coming year. By the nineteenth century the Yule log could also be found at Christmas celebrations in Germany, FRANCE, northern ITALY, Serbia, and most of northern Europe.
SELECTION AND PREPARATION
The Yule log was bigger than the usual chunk of wood tossed on the evening fire. In some places tree trunks or parts of tree trunks were used. The Scots preferred the trunk of a birch tree, dried and stripped of leaves and bark. Hence, the Scottish saying, “He’s a bare as a birk on Yule e’en,” meaning “He’s very poor.” The French had many names for the Yule log. In Provence it was known as a calignaou, but in other areas it was called a chalendal or a tréfoir. In Provence people believed that the best Yule logs were taken from fruit trees. The Serbs chose their log from green oak, olive, or beech trees. In some parts of England people scoured the countryside for a Yule log on CANDLEMAS. They set it aside to dry during the warm weather, thereby preparing an evenly burning log for the following Christmas.
CEREMONIES AND SUPERSTITIONS
The selection of the log and its entrance into the house were often accompanied by rituals and invocations. The Serbs poured wine on the log, sprinkled it with grain or other foodstuffs, made the sign of the cross over it, and officially welcomed it into the home with a blessing. In Provence, France, people sprinkled wine over the log and blessed it in the name of the Trinity. Moreover, as the Provençal family trooped out to get their log, they sang songs requesting that fertility and abundance grace their family and their farm. Before burning the log they drew a human figure on it in chalk. In other areas, a human figure was carved onto the log. In Brittany, France, the oldest and youngest family members lit the log together, while offering a prayer to JESUS. Another popular custom in many areas advocated decking the log with ribbons and GREENERY.
Many superstitions attached themselves to the Yule log. In England many people believed that maidens should wash their hands before touching it. If they didn’t, the log would not burn well. Other English folk beliefs warned that if a barefoot or squinting person came into the house while the log was lit, ill luck was sure to follow. According to some folk beliefs, the shadows cast by the light of the Yule log could be read as omens.
LIGHTING THE LOG
In many places tradition demanded that the new Yule log be lit with a fragment of last year’s log. In some areas people set flame to the Yule log on Christmas Eve, in other places on Christmas morning. Custom commonly dictated that the log be kept burning continuously on Christmas Day. If the fire went out, bad luck would dog the household during the coming year. In some parts of Italy and England the log was kept burning throughout the Twelve Days of Christmas. English families whose logs went out during the Twelve Days often found it difficult to relight them. In some areas folk beliefs warned that it was unlucky to lend fire to a neighbor during these days, a belief that can be traced back to the Roman celebration of KALENDS. Some towns kept communal fires burning for the purpose of lending flame to the unlucky folk whose fires went out. Greek folklore also advised householders to keep a fire in the hearth every day between Christmas and Epiphany. According to Greek folk beliefs, the fires warded off the evil elves known as the KALLIKANTZARI (see also CHRISTMAS IN GREECE).
GIFTS AND BLESSINGS
In some places Christmas GIFTS were distributed around the Yule log. In past times parents in some parts of Italy lit the Yule log, blindfolded their children, and instructed the tots to hit the burning Yule log with sticks, thereby releasing magical sparks. While the children were doing so, the parents brought out the children’s gifts. When their blindfolds were removed the delighted children fell upon the gifts magically provided by the log. Eventually, the Italians adopted the Christmas PYRAMID as a way of displaying Christmas decorations, foods, and gifts. Nevertheless, they call the pyramid a ceppo, which means “log” in Italian. Only the name remains as a clue to the existence of an earlier custom. A similar custom was once practiced in Burgundy, France. Parents instructed their children to say their prayers in another room while they hid some treats underneath the log. When the children returned they hit the log with a stick to make it bring forth its hidden treasures.
Widespread beliefs attributed special powers to the remains of the Yule log. Many people spread the ashes on their fields to increase the fertility of the land. In addition, families often guarded a charred chunk of the log in their homes in the belief that it deflected evil forces from the household and contained curative powers. Folk beliefs found across Europe attributed many powers to the ashes, including the power to prevent chilblains, cure toothaches, rid farm animals of parasites and disease, make cows calve and poultry lay, keep mice out of the corn, and protect the house from lightning and fire.
Yule logs fell out of favor in the nineteenth century. Their disappearance coincided with the decline in the importance of fires as sources of household light and warmth. This, in turn, led to the disappearance of large fireplaces. Indeed, today’s tiny ornamental fireplaces cannot accommodate a proper Yule log. In France a trace of the Yule log remains in a popular log-shaped CHRISTMAS CAKE called a buche de Noël, or “Christmas log.”