Each day from now until Christmas day one article will be devoted to a subject connected with Christmas. Today we take a look at the Yule log.
A Yule log is a large wooden log which is burned in the hearth as a part of traditional Yule or Christmas celebrations in several European cultures. It can be a part of the Winter Solstice festival or the Twelve Days of Christmas, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, or Twelth Night.
Pictured right is an illustration of people collecting a yule log from Chambers Book of Days (1832) p.736
The expression "Yule log" has also come to refer to log-shaped Christmas cakes, also known as "chocolate logs" or "Buche de Noel". The Yule log is related to other Christmas and Yuletide traditions such as the Ashen faggot. The term "Yule log" is not the only term used to refer to the custom. In the north-east of England it was commonly called a "Yule Clog", and in the country's Midlands and West Country, the term "Yule Block" was also used. In the county of Lincolnshire, the term "Gule Block" was found, and in Cornwall, the term "Stock of the Mock" was as well. In other parts of the British Isles, different terms were used, for instance in Wales, the log was often referred to as "Y Bloccyn Gwylian", meaning "the Festival Block", whilst in Scotland, "Yeel Carline" (meaning "the Christmas Old Wife") was used, and in Ireland, the term "Bloc na Nollaig", which meant "the Christmas Block", was used. In Germany, the log is referred to as Christklotz, Christbrand or Weihnachtsscheit ("Christ-log" or "Christmas-log"). Kindled on Christmas Eve, the log in German tradition functioned as a lightning charm.
Germanic pagan origins
The Yule log has frequently been associated with having its origins in the historical Germanic paganism which was practiced across northern Europe prior to Christianisation. One of the first people to do so was the British Henry Bourne, who, writing in the 1720s, described the practice occurring in the Tyne valley. Bourne theorised that the practice originated from Anglo-Saxon paganism, which is a form of Germanic paganism that was practiced in England during the early medieval period.
Robert Chambers, in his 1832 work, Book of days notes that "two popular observances belonging to Christmas are more especially derived from the worship of our pagan ancestors—the hanging up of the mistletoe and the burning of the Yule log." James George Frazer in his work on anthropology, The Golden Bough (p. 736) holds that "the ancient fire-festival of the winter solstice appears to survive" in the Yule log custom. Frazer records traditions from England, France, among the South Slavs, in Central Germany (Meiningen) and western Switzerland (the Bernese Jura).
However, some historians have disagreed with this claim, for instance the Swedish C.W. von Sydow attacked Frazer's theories, claiming that the Yule log had never had any religious significance, and was instead simply a festive decoration with practical uses.
In the British Isles
Because there are no accounts of the custom in the British Isles prior to the 17th century, some historians and folklorists have theorised that it was not an ancient British custom but was in fact imported into Britain from continental Europe in the early modern period, possibly from Flanders in Belgium, where the tradition thrived in this period. The first mention of the Yule log in the British Isles is a written account by the clergyman Robert Herrick, from the 1620s or 1630s. Herrick called the tradition a "Christmas log" and said that it was brought into the farmhouse by a group of males, who were then rewarded with free beer from the farmer's wife. Herrick claimed that the fire used to burn the log was always started with a remnant from the log that had been burned in the previous year's festivities. He also said that the log's role was primarily one of bringing prosperity and protection from evil - by keeping the remnant of the log all the year long the protection was said to remain across the year. In traditional British rural culture, the Yule log was not only seen as a magical protective amulet, and there are many reports of rivalries occurring between members of a community as to who had the largest log. The traditions of the Yule log died out in Britain in the latter 19th and early 20th century because of, according to historian Ronald Hutton, "the reduction in farm labour and the disappearance of the old-fashioned open hearths". In English folklore, Father Christmas was often depicted carrying a Yule Log