Yule Log - Past and Present 

While most people have heard of the Yule Log, few people realize that its tradition can be traced back to the days of the pagan Norsemen, or Vikings.

To celebrate their belief in the powers of the gods, the Norsemen held festivals. The father of the Gods was Odin or Thor, commonly called the Yule Father (Yule referred to the sun). The original Yule Log Ceremony was a festival celebrating the sun during the winter solstice, which occurs close to the time we celebrate Christmas today.

Originally, the Yule Log was burned in honor of the gods and to bring good luck in the coming year. The log was usually from one of the largest trees that could be found. It was so massive that to haul it a team of horses or oxen were needed. After the Norman invasion of England in 1066, the Yule Log tradition was passed on to the British and evolved to the tradition that it is today.

After being cut down, the Yule Log was dragged through the streets. The log always came from its owners' land or a neighbor's property, and was never purchased. It was always burned on Christmas Eve, accompanied by music, fun, and games. It was customary that each year a piece of the Yule Log was saved and used to start the fire for the next year's log.

To help kindle the fire, holly was placed under the log. Customarily, guests would toss a sprig of holly into the fire to burn up the troubles of the past year and to keep their houses safe from burning down in the New Year.

Some families still persist with this custom on Christmas Eve. An enormous log of freshly cut wood called the Yule log would be fetched and carried to the house with great ceremony. On Christmas Eve, the master of the house would place it on the hearth, make libations by sprinkling the trunk with oil, salt and mulled wine and say suitable prayers. In some families, the young girls of the house lit the log with splinters from the preceding year which they had carefully tucked away. In other families, the mother had this privilege. It was said that the cinders of this log could protect the house from lightning and the malevolent powers of the devil. Choices about the variety of wood, the way in which it was lit and the length of time it took to burn constituted a genuine ritual which could vary from region to region.

The custom, which dates back to the ancient times, was known in most Europeans countries, notably in France and in Italy where the Yule log was called a ceppo. This tradition persisted in Quebec as it did in France up until the last quarter of the XIXth century. Its disappearance coincides with that of great hearths which were gradually replaced by cast-iron stoves. The great log was thus replaced by a smaller one, often embellished with candles and greenery, placed in the centre of the table as a Christmas decoration.

Today, the Yule log has become a traditional pastry, a delicious cake roll, smothered in coffee or chocolate-flavoured icing and decorated with sugared holly leaves and roses.

Other Anglo-Saxon traditions include celebrating good health in the New Year by drinking from the wine-and-spice-filled Wassail bowl; baking Yule dough into figures shaped like people, with raisins for eyes and noses, to symbolize Christ (these Yule Dough people are where today's gingerbread men came from); burning a Yule Candle, which was big enough to burn for the 12 days of Christmas; and hanging a sprig of mistletoe for fertility and romance.


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