15th December, Yule Log
The Yule Log is a large wooden log, burned in the hearth as a part of Yule or Christmas celebrations. Originally an entire tree, it was carefully chosen and brought into the house with great ceremony to provide lasting warmth throughout the Twelve Days of Christmas (from Christmas Eve until Epiphany). In some European traditions, the largest end of the log would be placed in hearth while the rest of the tree stuck out into the room.
Ideally, the log would be lit with a brand made out of remnant of last year’s log, and it was hoped and considered a sign of great luck, that the log would burn throughout the twelve days. The Yule Log has frequently been associated with germanic paganism, practiced across northern Europe prior to the arrival of Christianity. One of the first to make this connection was the English historian Henry Bourne, writing in the 1720s, who described the practice occurring in the Tyne valley and theorised that it derived from sixth or seventh century Anglo-Saxon pagan customs – in old English folklore, Father Christmas was sometimes portrayed carrying a Yule Log.
The Yule Log brought prosperity and protection from evil, and by keeping the remnant of the log, the protection was believed to last all year. As well as being a protective amulet, the log became a source of rivalry – causing members of a rural communities to compete to possess the largest. According to historian and folklorist Professor Ronald Hutton, the traditions of the Yule Log died out in Britain at the end of the nineteenth century because of “the reduction in farm labour and the disappearance of the old-fashioned open hearths.”
In France and Wallonia, and francophone regions of the world – such as Quebec and in Lebanon – the Bûche de Noël (“Christmas Log”) is a traditional dessert, a cake in the shape of a Yule Log. Usually taking the form of a large cylindrical “roulade,” covered with chocolate icing, incised with a fork to resemble the tree’s bark – one end is lopped off and stood up to indicate the rings of the “log.”
I have shown here a Quebecois lumberjack, Alain Hauteville, sitting on the Yule Log he has just chopped down. The tree he chose was one that a childhood sweet-heart of his had written his initials into the bark many moons ago, before spurning him for a wealthy silk merchant in Montreal. After completing his thirsty work, young Al is enjoying a brew from his Thermos and a smoke,before dragging the lumber back to his cabin at the forest’s edge.
Illustration copyright © Paul Bommer