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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 Sun.

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Celtic Tree of Life

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
 
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