The Catholic Defender: The Tradition of the Yule Log and Christmas


Christmas is one of those times when families come together, when people at work come together highlighting the spirit of good will towards all men.

Fire has relevance in Christian theology, it speaks to the power of the Holy Spirit, fire speaks to the cleansing of the soul, it speaks to a person coming alive through Baptism. Hebrews 12:29 refers to God as a "consuming fire"

The Celebration of the Yule means no work as long as the special log burns. It perfectly speaks to the Hebrew understanding of Shalom or peace. It is festive, it involves the gathering family, friends, neighbors story telling, dancing, celebrating feasts.

Pope Julius I (337-352 A.D.) incorporated the tradition of the yule which came from Scandinavia celebrating the Winter Solstice, to celebrate Christmas. The Yule log traditional fire came to represent the light of the Savior instead of the light of the Sun. On or about Christmas eve, a big log was brought into a home or large hall. Songs were sung and stories told. Children danced. Offerings of food and wine and decorations were placed upon it. Personal faults, mistakes and bad choices were burned in the flame so everyone's new year would start with a clean slate. The log was never allowed to burn completely, a bit was kept in the house to start next years log. The log brought good luck. Any pieces that were kept protected a house from fire, or lightning, or hail. Ashes of the log would be placed in wells to keep the water good. Ashes were also placed at the roots of fruit trees and vines to help them bear a good harvest.

The Yule log represented the beginning of the Christmas celebrations. Traditions would have the Yule Log placed on an open fire, lately, I’ve seen where people have a fake yule log crackling in the background on a television. There are Christmas videos where you can sit back and watch a yule log for hours at a time, great for creating a scene familiar with eggnog, hot chocolate, and the best part of it, the family discussions and stories.

In Appalachia tradition, as long as the log, burned you could celebrate. Logs were placed in streams to ensure that the burn would last longer as the celebrations continued late into the night. People would go out looking for the greenest and meanest logs they could find.

The English expected their logs to last through the twelve days of Christmas beginning on Christmas Eve to the Feast of the Epiphany. These logs were so large that teams of horses were used to bring to the castle or place of celebration.

In England the log (called ‘The Mock’) was supposed to burn for the twelve days of Christmas, from Christmas eve on December 24th to Epiphany on January 6th. Anything left over from the tree would be reserved to be burned the following year.

Some English preferred a log from an ash tree. In the Slavic and other countries oak was the wood of choice. Almost everywhere, the fire was started with that bit of the last year's log, to symbolize continuity and the eternal light of heaven. In some parts of France, a special carol was sung when the log was brought into the home. In Provence (in France), it is traditional that the whole family helps to cut the log down and that a little bit is burnt each night. The carol prayed for health and fertility of mothers, nanny-goats, ewes, and an abundant harvest. Of course the French were probably the first to eat their yule logs. They started out burning them like everyone else, but when big open fireplaces began to disappear in France, they moved the tradition to the table by making a cake roll that looked like a Yule log, called a "Buche de Noel".

A Chocolate Yule Log or ‘bûche de Noël’ is now a popular Christmas desert or pudding. It’s traditionally eaten in France and Belgium, where they are known as ‘Kerststronk’ in Flemish. They are made of a chocolate sponge roll layered with cream. The outside is covered with chocolate or chocolate icing and decorated to look like a bark-covered log. Some people like to add extra decorations such as marzipan mushrooms!

I remember watching a movie that had a scene during Christmas time in Australia that was very hot. The English were so strong on keeping tradition that despite the temp being 100 degrees, they still wanted to burn a Yule log.

What some people will do to keep alive something of home. Hence, the development of the Yule log video.

My family has never burned such a log that I am aware of so I thought this was a good opportunity to investigate the roots of this tradition.

There is a story in the Old Testament where the Lord burned logs miraculously, “Answer me, O LORD, answer me, that this people may know that thou, O LORD, art God, and that thou hast turned their hearts back.” Then the fire of the LORD fell, and consumed the burnt offering, and the wood, and the stones, and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench. And when all the people saw it, they fell on their faces; and they said, “The LORD, he is God; the LORD, he is God.” 1 Kings 18

I like giving a biblical slant to these things, related stories are a great way of bringing a spiritual truth to a tradition being shared for children and grown ups alike. The merging of customs and traditions have always been something that people have done and I certainly like to keep a biblical base as I want to associate all things Christmas to the reason for the season. Jesus Christ is born bringing us and centering us in His Light.

The custom of the Yule Log spread all over Europe and different kinds of wood are used in different countries. In England, Oak is traditional; in Scotland, it is Birch; while in France, it’s Cherry. Also, in France, the log is sprinkled with wine, before it is burnt, so that it smells nice when it is lit.

In Devon and Somerset in the UK, some people have a very large bunch of Ash twigs instead of the log. This comes from a local legend that Joseph, Mary and Jesus were very cold when the shepherds found them on Christmas Night. So the shepherds got some bunches of twigs to burn to keep them warm.

In some parts of Ireland, people have a large candle instead of a log and this is only lit on New Years eve and then on January 6, the 12th night.

Different chemicals can be sprinkled on the log like wine to make the log burn with different colored flames!

Potassium Nitrate = Violet Barium Nitrate = Apple Green Borax = Vivid Green Copper Sulphate = Blue Table Salt = Bright Yellow

This Christmas, I want to encourage all of you to enjoy the true meaning of Christmas as we join in the family traditions; “And the angel said to them, Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people; for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”

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