The History of the Yule Log
The custom of burning the Yule Log may goes back to, and before, medieval times. Although the first recorded burning of a 'Christmas Log' was in poetry in 1648. The term 'Yule Log' is first documented in 1686. It seems to have originally been a Nordic tradition. Yule is the name of the old Winter Solstice festivals in Scandinavia and other parts of northern Europe, such as Germany.
Yule Logs could have started out an entire tree, or very large log, that was carefully chosen and brought into the house with great ceremony. The largest end of the log would be placed into the fire hearth while the rest of the tree stuck out into the room! The log would be lit from the remains of the previous year's log which had been carefully stored away and slowly fed into the fire through the Twelve Days of Christmas. A smaller log might have been lit each evening through the 12 Days of Christmas. It was considered important that the re-lighting process was carried out by someone with clean hands. Nowadays, of course, most people have central heating so it is very difficult to burn a tree!
The ashes of Yule logs were meant to be very good for plants. This is true, because the ash from burnt wood contains a lot of 'potash', which helps plant flowers. But if you throw the ashes out on Christmas day it was supposedly very unlucky!
Yule Logs and Christmas Fires in Different Countries
In Provence (in France), it is traditional that the whole family helps to cut the log down and that a little bit is burnt each night. If any of the log is left after Twelfth Night, it is kept safe in the house until the next Christmas to protect against lightning! In some parts of The Netherlands, this was also done, but the log had to be stored under a bed! In some eastern European countries, the log was cut down on Christmas Eve morning and lit that evening.
In Cornwall (in the UK), the log is called 'The Mock'. The log is dried out and then the bark is taken off it before it comes into the house to be burnt. Also in the UK, barrel makers (or Coopers as barrel makers were traditionally called) gave their customers old logs that they could not use for making barrels for Yule logs. (My surname is Cooper, but I don't make barrels! My Great Grandfather did own a walking stick factory though!)
There are customs of 'Yule Logs' all over Europe and different kinds of wood are used in different countries. In England, Oak is traditional; in Scotland, it is Birch; while in France, it's Cherry. Also, in France, the log is sprinkled with wine, before it is burnt, so that it smells nice when it is lit.
In Serbia, Croatia and North Montenegro, a large log called the Banjak is burnt on Christmas Eve. They are sometimes burnt on bonfires outside churches before the Christmas Eve service.
In Devon and Somerset in the UK, some people have a very large bunch of Ash twigs instead of the log. This comes from a local legend that Joseph, Mary and Jesus were very cold when the shepherds found them on Christmas Night. So the shepherds got some bunches of twigs to burn to keep them warm.
In some parts of Ireland, people have a large candle instead of a log and this is only lit on New Year's Eve and Twelfth Night.
Adding Color to Yule Logs
Different chemicals can be sprinkled on the log like wine to make the log burn with different colored flames!
- Potassium Nitrate = Violet
- Barium Nitrate = Apple Green
- Borax = Vivid Green
- Copper Sulphate = Blue
- Table Salt = Bright Yellow
This sounds very dangerous, so please only try this out with some adult supervision!!
Edible Yule Logs
A Chocolate Yule Log or 'Bûche de Noël' is now a popular Christmas dessert or pudding. It's traditionally eaten in France and Belgium, where they are known as 'Kerststronk' in Flemish.
They are made of a chocolate sponge roll layered with cream. The outside is covered with chocolate or chocolate icing and decorated to look like a bark-covered log. Some people like to add extra decorations such as marzipan mushrooms!