For daily wit & wisdom, sign up for the Almanac newsletter.
Are you familiar with the tradition of the Yule log? Or perhaps you like to “troll the ancient yuletide carols”? Yule is one of the oldest winter celebrations in the world—celebrated on the winter solstice. Learn more about this centuries-old festival and its traditions (including the Yule log cake!).
What Is Yule?
Today, “Yule” and “Yuletide” are largely synonymous with “Christmas” and “Christmastide,” but the meaning behind Yule is quite different from that of the Christian holiday.
The word “Yule” comes from Old English geol, which shares a history with the equivalent word from Old Norse, jól. Both these words referred to a midwinter festival centered around the winter solstice, which traditionally marked the halfway point of the winter season. After the solstice—the shortest day of the year—the days once again begin to grow longer, so it’s thought that Yule was a celebration of the re-appearance of the Sun and the fertile land’s rebirth.
The celebration of Yule is one of the oldest winter celebrations in the world. Ancient people were hunters and spent most of their time outdoors. The seasons and weather played a very important part in their lives. Customs and traditions associated with Yule vary widely. Most commonly, the celebration consisted of a hearty feast and general revelry, which included wassailing (caroling), drinking, and dancing.
Later, when Christianity came to the British Isles, Christians adopted aspects of the pagan festival into a celebration of the birth of Christ. As Christianity began to spread in the 4th century, the Christmas feast day was set on December 25 by Pope Julius I to align with the Roman pagan holiday Dies natalis solis invicti, “the birthday of the invincible Sun.” The rest is history.
The Burning of the Yule Log
Burning a log in celebration of Yule started well before medieval times. It began as part of the winter solstice festivities.
The candles and lights associated with Christmas, meant to symbolize guiding beacons for the Christ child, may have evolved from the Yule log, which was lit to entice the Sun to return as part of the jól (Yule) festival in Scandinavia.
Interestingly, the Yule log was originally an entire tree! Families would bring the trunk of the Yule tree inside and stick the big end of it into the fireplace. The Yule log would feed the fire through the 12 Days of Christmas (from Christmas Day through the evening of the 5th of January—known as Twelfth Night).
Today, a Yule log is still a Christmas tradition in some cultures; a large log is traditionally burned in the fireplace on Christmas Eve. For others cultures, the Yule log is defined as a log-shape chocolate cake enjoyed as a Christmas dessert.
If you are in the woodlot, plan to cut some of that white birch into Yule logs for your friends. They can be used in fireplaces or as decor. Tied with red ribbon, such logs make ideal Christmas gifts!
The Yule log also makes a great centerpiece for either tapers or tea lights (as shown in the photo at the top of this article). You could also use the purple and pink Advent candles. Our town’s Boy Scout troop drilled holes in birch logs to create special candle holders for Scout ceremonies.
Make an edible Yule log! Here’s our dessert recipe for a light bûche de Noël! It’s a Christmas favorite, adding a festive flair to any holiday table.