Yule, Yuletide. CHRISTMAS-TIME. O.E gÄol, from the Icel. JÅl
The name of a heathen festival at the winter SOLSTICE.
Wood burning stoves seem to be quite the thing these days – so with Christmas rapidly approaching perhaps we should be thinking about the ‘Christmas or Yule Log’. As Charles Lamb once had it… “Of all the enjoyments of the season the most indispensable is a large, heaped -up, all attractive fire”.
The only problem with the Yule Log is you should have chosen and cut it ten months ago at Candlemas, the 2nd of February, and dragged it home with considerable ceremony… the dragging being seen as insurance against witchcraft during the ensuing year.
In Britain there is a proverb that goes if a badger sticks his nose out of his burrow on Candlemas and finds the ground covered with snow he will come out and enjoy himself. If he finds the sun shining he will draw back into his hole….
"If Candlemas be fair and bright, Winter has another flight. If Candlemas brings clouds and rain, Winter will not come again."
Once you’ve got the log home and left it to dry it is not a case of simply putting it on the fire and standing well back. In France, where the traditional Christmas log may be over four feet long, a team of navvies or a JCB might be required. The form there was to light one end of the log on Christmas Eve and over the following days allow it to burn slowly through until it is finally consumed on Twelfth Night. Before the French Revolution it was traditional to light the log with a flame taken from a lamp in the nearest church. Before the flame was applied the prettiest girl in the room was toasted, not over the fire of course, but in wine. Less appealing children were not toasted but warned not to sit on the log lest they catch the itch!
In other parts of Europe it was customary to light the Yule log with a remnant or splinter from the previous year’s log, a survival perhaps of the old Celtic notion of a perpetual sacred fire. In the Netherlands it was a common practise to take this half-burnt splinter once the new log had caught fire, quench it and then place it under the bed as a charm against lightning. Of course, if you forgot to quench the splinter you could still go up in flames.
There were lots of observances that had to be followed to ensure a bright, well burning flame. The servants of the house were not allowed to touch the Yule Log without first washing their hands. In Yorkshire it was thought that people who squinted or came into the house barefooted while the fire was burning would bring bad luck. In the Balkans where the Yule Log was often decorated with leaves or flowers visitors were often invited to throw corn or splash wine onto the fire crying “Christ is Born”. The welcoming family would then reply “He is born indeed!” The visitor would then beat the log with a poker to make the sparks fly and utter a wish for good luck to the family and the wellbeing of the house.
In some parts of Great Britain where large logs were not generally available to the poor substitutes were used. In the north during the 18th century a large block of coal was used whereas in Devon and Somerset an ashen faggot replaced the Yule log. The story going with this tradition is that when the shepherds came through the snow to Bethlehem they found the Holy Family suffering from the cold. The youngest of the shepherds was sent out to find wood and he returned with a bundle of ash – this being the only wood that would burn while still green. There is also an older ash connection with the Vikings through the mystical Ash Yggdrasil. With its roots going down to hell and its branches to heaven the Ash Yggdrasil – the Tree of the World – sustained the Earth.
SOME TOP YULE LOG TIPS
- Never allow the Yule Log to burn out. That would be very unlucky. In some places a bonfire started with flame from the Yule Log would be kept burning outside the house throughout the Christmas season as an emergency back-up.
- If your Yule Log does go out do not ask a neighbour for more kindling or a flame to reignite it. Not only is it offensive to them but in some places it is considered extremely unlucky for any fire to leave a house between Christmas Eve and New Year’s Day.
- Do not even think of throwing the ashes from the Yule Log fire out of the house on Christmas Day. This act – considered to be throwing ashes in the Saviour’s face – would be nothing short of criminal.
- The ashes of the Yule log were supposed to give fertility to the ground, to rid cattle of vermin, to cure toothache and to protect the house from fire and ill luck.
SOME TOP WOOD BURNING STOVE TIPS
- Do not attempt to burn a four feet long French Yule Log on your stove… yule be sorry!
- Do not throw wine onto the fire. It will go out.
- Do not attempt to burn green ash on your stove. Despite the tradition the fire will go out.
For those who do not have an open fire, stove or Yule log to burn here is two hours of festive flame.
— from Martyn Day