Yule log

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An illustration of people collecting a Yule log from Chambers Book of Days (1832) p. 736
Yule log bonfire on Reynolds Nature Preserve

A yule log is a large and very hard log which is burned in the hearth as a part of traditional Yule or modern Christmas celebrations in several European cultures. It may also be associated with the winter solstice festival or the Twelve Days of Christmas, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, or Twelfth Night.

The expression yule log has also come to refer to log-shaped Christmas cakes, also known as chocolate logs or bûche de Noël. The yule log is related to other Christmas and Yuletide traditions such as the ashen faggot.[1]

Terminology[edit]

The term "Yule log" is one of a number of terms used to refer to the custom. In the north-east of England it was commonly called a "Yule Clog",[2] and in the country's Midlands and West Country, the term "Yule Block" was also used.[2] In the county of Lincolnshire, the term "Gule Block" was found, and in Cornwall, the term "Stock of the Mock" was as well.[2]

In other languages, similar terminology can be found. In Welsh it is called a boncyff Nadolig ("Christmas log" or "Christmas stump"), and in Irish Bloc na Nollag, which means "Christmas block".[2] In German the log is referred to as Christklotz, Christbrand or Weihnachtsscheit ("Christ-log" or "Christmas-log") and is kindled on Christmas Eve. In Scots, by contrast, it is known as the Yeel carline (meaning "Christmas Old Wife").

The Yule log was originally an entire tree, that was carefully chosen and brought into the house with great ceremony with the purpose being to provide maximum warmth and endurance. In some European traditions, the largest end of the log would be placed into the fire hearth while the rest of the tree stuck out into the room. While references are anecdotal, it seems to be a tradition that morphed into early European Christian tradition of the Twelve Days of Christmas. Within 20th century Europe and North America, it was predominantly a reference to the burning of the largest log possible at or around Christmas.

Historical origins[edit]

The Yule log has been said to have its origins in the historical Germanic paganism which was practiced across Northern Europe prior to Christianization. One of the first people to suggest this was the English historian Henry Bourne, who, writing in the 1720s, described the practice occurring in the Tyne valley. Bourne theorised that the practice derives from customs in 6th to 7th century Anglo-Saxon paganism.[2]

Robert Chambers, in his 1864 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 folklorist Carl Wilhelm von Sydow (sv) 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.[2]

Modern folklore[edit]

Great Britain[edit]

Because there are no accounts of the custom in Great Britain 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.[2]

The first mention of the Yule log in Britain 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.[2]

The Yule log was not only seen as a magical protective amulet in traditional British rural culture. There are many reports of rivalries occurring between members of a community as to who had the largest log.[2]

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",[2] however the Bûche de Noël dessert has become a Christmas tradition in the UK, as in many French speaking places.

In English folklore, Father Christmas was often depicted carrying a Yule Log.[3]

French-speaking Europe[edit]

In France and Wallonia, and thence also in Quebec and in Lebanon, the Bûche de Noël ("Christmas log") is a traditional dessert, in origin a facsimile of the actual Yule log. The tradition of the Yule log was discontinued as large fireplaces became an increasingly rarer feature of the average living room. The dessert is usually in the form of a large rectangular yellow cake spread with frosting and rolled up into a cylinder - one end is then lopped off and stood on end to indicate the rings of the "log." It is not known when the dessert, or its name, originated. It is known to have existed by 1945, and apparently, a tradition of jam rolls served at Christmas is attested for Poitou-Charentes since the 19th century.[citation needed]

Southern Europe[edit]

In the most traditional of Catalan homes, the old custom of "fer cagar el tió" is still followed for Christmas. A log is wrapped with a blanket several days in advance of Christmas and is "fed" grass. On Christmas Eve the log is repeatedly hit in order to make the log go "cagar", or defecate. The blanket is then removed to reveal the gifts that have been "expelled" by the log.

In Galicia, the Cachopo de Nadal (Yule log) was burned in Christmas Eve.[4]

In Tuscany, there is a Festa del Ceppo ("festival of the log").

Balkans[edit]

The badnjak is a central feature in the traditional Serbian Christmas celebration. It is the log that a family solemnly brings into the house and places on the fire on the evening of Christmas Eve. The tree used for the badnjak, preferably a straight young oak, is ceremonially felled in the early morning of Christmas Eve. The burning of the log is accompanied by prayers that the coming year may bring much happiness, love, luck, riches, and food. It burns on through Christmas Day, whether rekindled or kept burning from Christmas Eve. The first person to visit the family that day is supposed to strike the burning badnjak with a poker or a branch to make sparks fly from it, at the same time uttering a wish that the happiness, prosperity, health, and joy of the family be as abundant as the sparks. The ideal environment for these customs is the traditional multi-generation country household. Since most Serbs today live in towns and cities, the badnjak is symbolically represented by oak twigs with leaves on, bought in street markets or received in churches. The origin of the badnjak is explained by reference to events surrounding the nativity of Jesus Christ; scholars, however, regard these customs as practices inherited from the old Slavic religion.

In Bulgaria, the log is an important part of Christmas Eve preparations. Traditionally а young man of the family was sent dressed in his best clothes to cut down an oak, elm or pear tree, which was used as the Budnik (bg:Бъдник). A prayer for forgiveness was necessary before it was chopped down and carried on the right shoulder without being allowed to touch the ground. An indication of the importance of the ritual is that Christmas Eve translates to Budnik or Budnik Eve (bg:Бъдни вечер) in Bulgaria. In some regions, on the man's return he asks, "Do you glorify the young God?" three times and receives a positive answer, "We glorify Him, welcome". A hole is then bored in one end of the budnik and filled with Chrism made of wine, cooking oil, and incense. The hole is plugged, and that end of the log is wrapped with a white linen cloth before the badnik is festively burned on the hearth.[5] The log is considered to possess special healing powers and the ritual includes songs and the uttering of wishes as the log is lit, much like the Serbian ritual described above. The log has to burn all night. It is believed that its warmth and light symbolise the coming of Christ as well as providing a warm welcome to the Virgin Mary and the family's ancestors, who are believed to be guests at the table according to traditions in some regions. Sometimes the fire is put out in the morning using wine. Remains of the log are cherished and may be used to make personal crosses or a plough, and the ashes are spread over a field or vineyard to induce better yields.

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ "Ashen Faggot at Dartmoor". Legendarydartmoor.co.uk. 2007-10-28. Retrieved 2013-02-20. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Hutton, Ronald (1996). The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain. Oxford University Press. pp. 39–41. 
  3. ^ American Christmas Origins
  4. ^ [gl:O Nadal na cultura popular galega#Tizón de Nadal]
  5. ^ Komitska, Anita. "Бъдник". Коледа (in Bulgarian). Asen Gramenov. Retrieved 2009-09-05. 
  • Margaret Baker, Discovering Christmas Customs and Folklore (1992), pp. 16 ff.
  • Walsh, William Shepard. Curiosities of Popular Customs And of Rites, Ceremonies, Observances, and Miscellaneous Antiquities (1897), p. 1014

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