The lost tradition of the yule log
The Christmas holiday is quickly approaching. It is a day all the kids are waiting for to open their packages and continue some of the many traditions of the season. As with so many traditions, it is filled with chestnuts, nutcrackers, decorations, stockings and even the yule log. So many of these items are part of our decorating rituals during Christmas, but many are now celebrated with the original meanings lost long ago.
The yule log happens to be one of the oldest Christmas traditions. In fact, it was created long before the act of Christmas came into existence. It originated in Scandinavia to celebrate the winter solstice and the beginning of longer days. This celebration meant that the darkest days were over and the rebirth of the sun has begun.
The burning of the yule log not only took place in the Scandinavian countries but also as far west as Ireland to the south in Greece to as far north as Siberia. The flames represented the light of the sun, but in later years, when it was incorporated into the Christmas holiday, it represented the light of the Savior.
Many of us have heard about the burning of the yule log during Christmas, but few of us are aware of the reason for this ritual. Originally the burning of the yule log began during the winter solstice and lasted for three days. As long as the log burned, people did not have to work. If that were the case today, I would be burning one continuously and long after the winter solstice ended. But today it is more symbolic than an actual ritual.
People chose their yule log based on many ideas and beliefs. Different types of tree wood represented different things to the people that burned them. Some chose the wood of the aspen for spiritual understanding. Others chose the wood of the mighty oak as it represented strength, wisdom and healing. The wood of the pine urged a coming year of prosperity and growth. Those wishing for a family opted for the wood of the birch representing fertility along with new beginnings. The ash, the most common, invoked protection.
Each year a new log is brought into the home and lit for the yule festival. It is a time of celebration, feast and family. In those days, fireplaces were quite large and could host the trunk that was brought in for burning. Usually they would soak this log in water for days or choose a very green log to ensure a long and consistent burn. The yule log is never allowed to completely burn as a piece is saved to start the new one the following year. Not only did this bring good luck, it also represented continuity and the eternal light of heaven.
The remaining piece of unburnt yule log was left in the house through the year to protect it from fire, lightning or hail. The ashes were sprinkled in wells to keep the water safe. Some ashes were also placed at the roots of fruit trees and vines to help them bear a good harvest the following year.
In some cultures, these logs were also used to predict bad luck. If the fire was ever allowed to go out before the night was over, it meant tragedy would strike the home in the coming year. If the flames cast someone's shadow without a head, it supposedly meant that person would die within a year.
It was a ritual of the past that many held true to tradition and belief. In today's world, fireplaces are no longer large enough to host a tree trunk during the festival period. Many places do not even have a fireplace anymore, thus comes the creation of the symbolic yule log many of us have today.
When creating a yule log of today, select a log about 14 to 18 inches in length and of any thickness. Choose a wood variety that best suits your dreams for tomorrow and begin decorating it. Usually natural products are used that one can collect out in nature. Cuttings of mistletoe, pine, holly and ivy are used for the scent and base decoration. Dries berries, nuts and pine cones are added for color and texture. Ribbons of paper and cloth are used over synthetic items, as these are more natural for the burning ritual. Bird feathers and cinnamon sticks are also used for unique contrasts.
For your own symbolic tradition of the yule log, people chose to burn this log on Christmas Eve to welcome in a new year of beginnings and promise. Personal faults, mistakes and bad choices were burnt in the flame so everyone's new year began with a clean slate.
Some of these decorative yule logs are saved from year to year and have candles placed on them that are burned for the same symbolic meaning. However you choose to use your yule log is a personal decision, but the history behind the ritual can always remain the same.
In a world of doom and despair, it is nice to hold on to some traditions that give one a sense of hope and humility. It is one of the main reasons some traditions have gone on for centuries while other trivial things have faded off into the sunset. Enjoy a little yuletide this season with the addition of a yule log in your home. This season remains rich in tradition.