The Yule log is a Christmas tradition in which a log of wood is gradually burned in a fireplace over several nights.
The tradition was once popular in parts of Europe and made its way to North America, but is now part of the more general tradition of having a log fire at Christmas.
According Linda Watts (opens in a new tab)historian at the University of Washington Bothell, the yule log tradition may have once been a pagan custom representing “divine light” during the Germanic mid-winter festival of Yule, which predates Christianity.
It is unclear what Yule originally meant, but the original Germanic words – “geol” in Old English and “jol” in Old Norse – can refer to winter months (opens in a new tab). However, after the conversion of Germanic lands to Christianity in the early Middle Ages, “Yule” became a word for Christmas.
Watts noted that several Yule traditions, possibly including the Yule log, have come to be known as Christmas traditions.
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In the earliest form of the yule log tradition, the end of a log of wood was pushed into a fire, where it burned overnight while the rest of the unburned log lay outside flames. Some yule logs were very large, and illustrations from Tudor times in England (around the 16th century) show several men carrying the logs up the chimney of a stately home. But in other cases, the log was a little smaller and could be stored “for luck” under a bed between fire accesses, supposedly as protection against lightning and – ironically – fire, writes Watts in the “Encyclopedia of American Folklore (opens in a new tab)(Recorded Facts, 2007).
More of the unburned log was then moved into the fire as it was consumed each night, until the “12 Days of Christmas” passed on January 6. (According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, the 12 days of Christmas (opens in a new tab) can represent the 12 days before the baby Jesus was seen by the Magi, also known as the Three Wise Men or Three Wise Men.)
Whatever was left of the Yule log would be burned in the days that followed, as a way to establish continuity.
According to Watts, the yule log tradition traveled to North America with European settlers, and for a time burning a yule log was one of the traditions of an American Christmas.
There are stories that slaves in the American South might be given days off at Christmas while a yule log burned at the “big house”. According to a 1998 study in the Journal of the First Republic (opens in a new tab) by Purdue University historians Shauna Bigham and Robert E.May (opens in a new tab)some reports claimed that the slaves rejoiced “until the yule log burned, which sometimes took over a week”.
But the authors note that this was not usual, and that many slaves had to work at Christmas; others were threatened that their “bad behavior” would cause them to lose their few days off at Christmas.
In France, where the tradition of the Yule log was once widespread and known as the Yule log, the Yule log has been replaced by the tradition of a cake iced to resemble a log of wood, also known as of a Christmas log.
National geographic (opens in a new tab) reports that there is evidence of Yule log cakes from the 1600s. But the fact that they were usually made with rolled sponge cake suggests that the cake tradition became popular when sponge cakes appeared in the 19th century, after the marketing of baking powder.
The yule log tradition now seems to be part of the general tradition of building a log fire at Christmas, but Watts told Live Science in an email that virtual yule log fires are now common.
A New York television station, WPIX, first aired a yule log that aired on Christmas in 1966, showing a log burning in the fireplace of Gracie Mansion, the official residence of the mayor of New York.
“The view of Gracie Mansion’s foyer, filmed in color, was accompanied by Christmas music,” Watts said. “I remember this program from my childhood, which I spent in the New York area.”
She notes that there have been many copies of the WPIX Christmas newspaper run (the first run ended in 1989; but it was revived in 2001 and still runs today), and the tradition of the newspaper now lives on as an Internet video showing crackling logs, often set to Christmas music.