Burning the yule log has a long, rich history. It's a practice many believe originated with 11th-century Vikings. As pagans, Norsemen honored the winter solstice -- the day of the year with the shortest amount of sunlight -- with their Julfest celebration. They'd burn the biggest log they could find to welcome the return of light after a long, dark winter.
In fact, "yule" is the Norse term for "sun," so the Vikings enacted this fire ritual to honor the father of all the gods, Odin; to erase all of the bad events of the prior year; and to welcome the new year's opportunities.
Legend holds that the Druids also practiced a log-burning ritual. According to Melissa Snell, who guides the About.com medieval history site, "the Druids would bless a log and keep it burning for 12 days. Part of the log was kept for the following year, when it would be used to light the new log."
Snell writes that the Viking tradition of burning yule logs included carving runes on the logs "to represent the unwanted traits (such as ill fortune or poor honor) that they wanted the gods to take away from them."
When the Vikings set about their invading travels, they brought their yule log traditions to England in 1066. There, pagan Englishmen adopted the ritual, often burning a large log in the center of the town square and tossing sprigs of holly into the fire to bring good luck and keep bad luck away. Peasants presumed evil spirits might come during the winter solstices' prolonged darkness, and they too burned the yule log in an attempt to keep those spirits at bay.
As Christianity evolved in Europe, many pagan traditions were transformed into Christian traditions. For instance, the wreath evolved from a pagan wheel to a ring of foliage bearing symbolism of Christian doctrines.
During the 1700s and 1800s, in Europe and in the Americas, it was a regular Christmas tradition for men to go an expedition to find a yule log.
Many families still practice the tradition by burning a yule log in their fireplace on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. They may affix their logs with pinecones to symbolize rebirth, resurrection or even fertility. In this case, the log isn't the largest one they can find; unlike the Vikings, today's family doesn't need horses or oxen to drag the log onto their property. The modern family yule log may be a simple, modest cut of wood burning by itself in the hearth while the family gathers for post-dinner coffee or the singing of Christmas carols.
"We have a tradition of burning the yule log while my father reads from 'Twas the Night Before Christmas' for all the kids to hear," says mother of three Elizabeth Dean. Other families have each member tell favorite memories from the previous year, or speak of a wish they'd like the good-luck yule log to bring them in the next year.
In France, many families burn small pieces of the yule log each night of the 12 nights before Christmas. And in many cultures, families still keep a piece of last year's yule log with which to burn this year's new log.
*Yule Log Superstitions
The continual burning of a yule log is essential to its good-luck mission. "If you let that log go out during the twelve days of Christmas, you're ruined," says Holly Legend of the site ChristmasLore.com. An untended log could mean bad luck for the rest of the year.
For good luck, according to one superstition handed down through generations, cut the yule log from this year's tree and let it cure until next Christmas.
Borrowing from ancient cultures, superstition says that a burning yule log will protect your home from lightning and from evil spirits -- and even the devil himself.
While no origin has ever been placed with surety on the symbolism of the type of wood, modern-era pagans share with Christians the following meanings of yule log materials:
--Aspen: invokes understanding of the universe.
--Birch: signifies new beginnings.
--Holly: inspires visions and reveals past lives.
--Oak: brings healing, wisdom and strength.
--Pine: signifies prosperity and growth.
--Willow: invokes the Goddess to achieve desires.
*Perhaps a Cake Instead
If you don't have a wood-burning fireplace, you might enjoy the French-inspired tradition of the Buche de Noel, a cake designed to look like a yule log. This cake features frosting resembling bark, and even Martha Stewart has demonstrated making tiny mushrooms out of meringue in decorating her yule log.
In France, the Buche de Noel is served after midnight mass on Christmas Eve, but in the United States, serve it at any time of your Christmas celebration.