December 8, 2015

Yule Logs

Writers and historians trace the Yule log back to the ancient pagan holiday of Yule. Although it is not very well known how people would have celebrated at this time it can be agreed though that there were most likely huge bonfires involved. The earliest historical mention of a Yule log taking a spot in the fireplace comes to us from medieval Germany. There are several references to this type of log at this time in Germany; there are also records of the same type of log at the same time in France. This log however was used as a form of tax where peasants would each bring a huge log to the closest manner house so that the family be kept warm through the winter season. However, in England the custom can only be traced back as far as the seventeenth century. The English had a number of names for the log including: Yule log, Yule clog, Christmas Log, and Christmas block.  People would sometimes saranade the log with music so that it may be reminded that it had the ability to protect the household from evil during the upcoming year and to coax good luck and abundance out of it. 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.

The Yule log was bigger than the normal chunk of wood tossed on the evening fire. In some places tree trunks or parts of tree trunks were used.  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 trefoir. In Provence, people believed that the best Yule logs came 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.

Many superstitions attached themselves to the Yule logs; in England many people believed that maidens should wash their hands before touching it, lest the log not burn well. Other English folks beliefs warned them that if a barefoot or squinting person came into the house while the log was lit, ill luck would be sure to follow. According to some beliefs the shadows cast by the Yule log could be read as omens.

In many places tradition demanded that the new Yule log be lit with a fragment of last year’s log. In some places people set the log aflame of Christmas Eve, others on Christmas morning, and some during the whole Twelve Days of Christmas; however, most customs dictated that the log be kept burning continuously on Christmas Day. If the fire went out the household would be dogged by bad luck for the year to come. English families who lost the fire on their log found it difficult to relight it; in some areas neighbours thought that it was unlucky to lend fire to a neighbour 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 flames to the unlucky folks whose fires went out. Greek folk lore also advised households to keep a fire in the hearth every day between Christmas and Epiphany; the fire was meant to ward off evil elves known as the kallikantzari, according to Greek folk beliefs.

Yule logs fell out of favour 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. Today’s tiny ornamental fire places would not be able to house a proper Yule log. In France a trace of the Yule log remains in the popular log shaped Christmas cake called the buche de Noel, or ‘Christmas Log’.

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