Will You Be Burning a Yule Log This Year?

If a fireplace graces your home, why not revive a classic tradition and burn a Yule log?

Once upon a time, a Yule log burned in the hearths of most Western homes come Christmas Eve — if only because most homes had fireplaces back then. There weren’t many options for keeping warm in the winter before the wonders of modern technology, after all.

The Yule log eventually came to America, but this Christmas tradition has evolved so much since then that it’s more cake and video than wood and flame… and if that sounds like a weird statement, so it is. We’ll return to it in a bit.

Holly, Jol-ly Christmas

“Yule” is now synonymous with Christmas, but once upon a time it was a separate holiday period, called Geol or Jol. It lasted two months, from mid-November to early January, and was absorbed into Christmas by A.D. 1000.

The original Yule log was a very dense, durable log associated with one or more of the holidays from Christmas Eve through Twelfth Night. It became widespread in England by the 1600s, but had long been celebrated in Germanic regions.

A Log of Many Names

Before celebrants settled on a single term for the tradition, its name varied from Yule Clog to Yule Block to Gule Block, Y Bloccan Gwylian, and Stock of the Mock, and that was only in the British Isles. Most other countries used a term that translates as “Christmas log.”

Classic Yule logs were often an entire tree much bigger than the fireplace. One end was stuck into the hearth, lit on Christmas Eve, and burned bit by bit until it was gone. One would imagine that would require a round-the-clock guard, just in case it tragically ignited the Christmas presents.

The Mighty Morphin’ Christmas Tradition

As burning an entire tree in the fireplace became less and less practical, the tradition morphed into different forms. There’s the Ashen Faggot, a bundle of ash twigs and greenery tossed in the fire and toasted with drinks as it ignites bit by bit. Often this is accompanied by the mysterious tradition of wassailing.

In some countries (especially French-speaking ones), log-shaped cakes have come to be called Yule logs or Buche de Noel. Now, there’s a tasty alternative to toasted Christmas gifts!

The American Option

I’m especially fond of the uniquely American version, which traces back to the 1960s: a video of a burning fireplace broadcast on TV as an endless loop while classical, jazz, or easy listening music plays in the background.

Sometimes they try to torture you with overplayed Christmas songs, of course. If I hear “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” on more time, I’ll… well, let’s just say you can still enjoy the video Yule log if you make judicious use of your remote’s Mute button!