The Yule log is another one of those traditions that’s passed down through the ages and is probably one you’re familiar with but never quite understood what it symbolizes. It can mean different things to different people and many will interpret it as a log-shaped cake!
Origin of the Yule Log
The Yule log can be traced back to the early Scandinavian times which was well known as the home of the Vikings, in fact, it’s likely the tradition began much earlier than records indicate and was probably first celebrated by Pagans. The word ‘Yule’ comes from the old Norse word for ‘Winter’ and was spoken by most people living in Scandinavia throughout the 11th century. The log part is what it says on the tin! A log!
Life in the 11th century was hard. It was cold and brutal. Can you imagine trying to survive these conditions without all the modern comforts we enjoy today? It gets worse! The people would only expect around 4 hours of light each day in the depth of Winter. It probably comes as no surprise then, the Winter solstice (the middle of Winter and the shortest day) would be something to celebrate. And this is exactly what they did with the chopping down and burning of a tree to celebrate the long journey out of Winter and into the light. The enormous log would burn all night and the villagers would gather for a drink, food, and other festivities.
The Yule celebration might be one of the oldest celebrations we know about and to the people that celebrated it, one of the most important!
The Yule Log Christmas Tradition
The modern lights and candles that are an essential part of the Christmas celebration were passed on from the Yule celebrations which focussed on fire (log burning) and light (longer days as the days become longer). The colorful lighting we cherish at Christmas symbolizes the light to guide Christ ahead of his Birthday on the 25th.
In more modern times, it’s difficult to trace the full path of the Yule tradition but we know it was mentioned again by John Aburey in his writings of 1686. It’s thought the Yule log was set alight indoors in the fireplace with a part sticking out. As the end burned, it would slowly be fed into the fire until it was finished.
At some point, Christianity adopted the celebration of the Yule log in the British Isles and early records indicate that the Yule log was burned over the 12 days of Christmas. It was likely to have been 12 separate logs with one for each of the 12 nights.
Legend has it that in Yorkshire, Northern England, a piece of the Yule log was kept and used to light next year’s log on the first day of Christmas.
Yule Log Around the World
The Yule log is still widely celebrated today however many countries have chosen their own way of doing things. As traditions developed individually, countries came up with their own Yule celebrations. It’s still common in many countries to burn a log, usually Oak in the northern hemisphere.
The French were the first to bake cakes as an alternative and although they are mostly chocolate it’s not uncommon to find gingerbread cakes. The Yule log cake is usually a soft sponge cake and came about as a clever solution for those homes that didn’t have the luxury of a fireplace.
In Ireland, candles are lit on Christmas eve to represent the Yule log and in some European countries (Montenegro, Italy) it’s common for the head of the family to sprinkle wine on top of the log.
I don’t see any reason why you couldn’t just use YouTube these days, there are plenty of 10/12 hour fireplace videos complete with burning logs and Christmas music!
What is the difference between a Yule Log and a Yuletide Log?
We’ve covered the definition of the Yule log above but there is a slight variance in the meaning of Yuletide. The ‘tide’ part means a time following a festival or celebration so Yuletide references the time between the Winter solstice and Christmas day. In 2023, the Winter solstice occurs on the 22nd of December in the Northern hemisphere which would make the Yuletide period between the 22nd and 25th, and according to tradition, logs should burn for 3 days.
The Yule log has been passed down in different forms over the centuries from early celebrations of the Winter solstice to the modern Christan celebration of Christmas that the Yule log symbolizes today.
If you ask me, I’d go for the cake 🙂