by Sandra Merville Hart
The custom of burning logs around the time of the winter solstice dates back to 5000 BC in Egypt and the time of Moses.
“Yule” logs were first used around winter solstice by the Vikings in an outdoor celebration of longer days that were coming. They brought the celebration to Britain when they invaded them.
The custom of burning yule logs moved inside homes in the fourth century.
By 1066, most British communities celebrated the custom, which continued for the next 700 years. Late winter or early spring was the time to cut a yule log from their land or a friend’s land for the next year’s celebration. The large log that had to burn for the 12 twelve days of Christmas was dragged home and set to dry.
Spices, wine, and rum were periodically rubbed into the log. When burning, the spices gave a pleasant perfume-like aroma to remind everyone of the gifts of the Magi.
It was brought into the home on Christmas Eve. After the church bells rang that day, it was lit from a piece of last year’s yule log. Folks considered it a bad sign if the log didn’t light on the first attempt.
After the fire started, the family symbolically burned the year’s misfortunes by tossing sprigs of holly into the hearth. The Christmas story was told. The family played games and sang songs before eating a meal prepared over the yule log’s fire.
For the remainder of the 12 days of Christmas, the women tended the fire because it was considered bad luck for it to die out early. A small piece of the yule log was then saved to ignite the next year’s fire.
Centuries passed. As huge hearths became a thing of the past, the yule logs were only required to burn 12 hours.
The French replaced the traditional yule log with a buche de Noel. This log-shaped cake was served after Christmas Eve’s midnight mass.
So, yule logs are usually a sweet treat these days.
It’s fun to learn the surprising history behind this modern holiday tradition.
Collins, Ace. Stories Behind the Great Traditions of Christmas, Zondervan, 2003.
“Yule Log,” Wikipedia, 2020/11/13 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yule_log.