You’ve probably heard something about Yule logs heading into the holidays, especially if you’re anywhere YouTube or Netflix. Because you know, now everyone seems to have their hour-long video of a burning log or fireplace uploaded on the holidays. This might have you wondering what a Yule log even is in the first place, because you might have just thought it was a neat thing your friend put on their TV to put up some good vibes at the last Christmas party and you were too afraid to ask. Luckily, we don’t judge so we’ll let you ask the question: what is a yule log?
It’s Actually Just a Log
Well, the Yule log is also referred to as a Christmas block. We’ll stick to Yule log though. Like many things that are now associated with Christian tradition, the roots of the Yule log are most likely derived from what we now know as Germanic paganism, originating in Northern Europe as far back as the 4th century.
Further Reading: What Does it Mean to Be Pagan?
Yuletide itself is derived from Celtic tradition, wherein a Yule feast was held around November. The burning of a log during this time is a pretty common thread through Winter Solstice celebrations too. For Northern Europeans, they would search for a big oak log that would be burned for the Yule fire during the Festival of Yule. By the time the Yule log made its way to Christmas, we got the tradition of burning a little bit of the log until the Twelfth Night, ending on January 6th. Ergo, the log was supposed to burn through the 12 days of Christmas. The log itself is used to fuel the Yule fire, which is meant to go from the 24th of December through the 6th of January (or the 1st). Other variations include Yule candles, but they’re still rooted in the same place.
The pre-Christian Yule festivals generally seem to be in deference to the Sun, where people would celebrate the passing of the Winter Solstice. There would be sacrificial meals and prayers to ancestors, while the Yule fire would set the tone for the upcoming year. Most of these traditions did make their way to Christianity when they absorbed pagan traditions. What they kept less of is Yule’s association with the dead; Yule was also a time when dangers caused by the spirits of the dead were to be avoided. In Scandinavia people were to keep their homes tidy, lest the dead not like how the place looked.
It’s Also a Cake
You’re probably more familiar with the Yule log as a dessert. If you’re feeling French you probably see it referred to as bûche de Noël–which just means “Christmas log” in French.
The dessert is based on a sponge cake, and while Yule logs generally originated from (probably) Northern Europe, the dessert dates back to the 19th century, while the French were particularly attached to Yule logs in the 17th century. They believed that keeping some of the leftover Yule log under the bed could keep their house from being hit by lightning. Which probably has its roots in Thor, that pagan god who would have been worshipped before Yule met Christianity.
If you’re wondering how the Yule log went from fuel to food, it was probably because the Yule log eventually became a centerpiece at the dinner table, that was later garnished with candy and fruit.
More Christmas shenanigans here.