The Yule Log
The burning of a "Yule" log is steeped in many
cultural traditions -- some going back more than a couple thousand years and predating Christianity. Many early cultures
ranging from the Druids, the Celts, the early Romans and Normans celebrated Winter Solstice as they knew that the longest
night of winter heralded the soon-to-come Spring.
The Druids and other Northern European cultures held the tree in high esteem. Trees played major roles in day-to-day
living. They provided shade and protection. Some trees bore fruit. Trees could be cut down and used for
building. And they could also be used for burning -- to provide light and warmth on long cold winter nights.
The Druids, in particular, observed the annual life-cyle of trees. The evergreens were of particular interest since
they remained green throughout the year. During Winter Solstice -- the longest, darkest night, it became tradition to
cut down the largest tree that could be found and a portion of the trunk or log would be dragged by a team of horses or oxen
and placed in either a bonfire or in a large open hearth. The burning of the wood was reminiscent of the blazing
Those winter festivites celebrated as 'Yuletide' have taken many
forms over the eons. Most, however celebrate light, warmth, the end of the long winter and the coming spring.
The name, however, comes from a celebration of the Norse god, Odin. Odin was also known as
'Jolnir'. The celebration to honor Jolnir throughout Northern Europe and particularly in Scandinavia was known as "Jol"
or "Jule" and pronounced "Yule".
The Yule log, prior to burning, was often decorated with greenery
such as mistletoe and holly, along with bits of brightly colored material. While the Yule log burned, there was
much feasting, singing, music, and celebration. The log was never burned completely, however. The fire would be
extinguished and a small piece would be saved to light the next Yule log the following year. The ashes were placed in
gardens and around fruit-bearing trees and shrubs to help them grow.
As time passed, the Yule log was more elaborately decorated
and became more symbolic of light and rebirth. People would bake breads and cakes in the shape of Yule logs as part
of the winter celebration. They would also make wassail -- a beverage likely made of mulled beer flavored
with sugar, ale, ginger, nutmeg, and cinnamon. This was drunk from a vessel generally made of wood and later coated in silver.
It was observed that, while deciduous trees would drop their leaves
in the autumn and appear to die in the winter, there were certain trees (the conifers or 'evergreens') that would remain green
throughout the winter. People thought they had magical life-giving powers. They would cut and decorate the
boughs of evergreens and bring them into the home. This was a part of the winter solstice celebration.
Throughout northern Europe, the ancient
Germanic people attached fruit and candles to evergreen branches. Trees were viewed as symbolizing eternal life.
The trees joined holly, mistletoe, the wassail bowl and the Yule log as participants in the winter solstice celebration.
These celebrations all predated Christianity.
As the centuries passed, the idea of bringing parts
of trees such as logs and boughs into
the home evolved into bringing in the tree itself. Let's take a look at some early Christmas Trees and the roles they've
played in the Christian Era:
The Christmas Tree