People who talk about yule logs today are generally speaking about a cake decorated to resemble a log that is popular around Christmas. The word yule is a derivative of a Germanic pagan ritual called guili. It was a festival that occurred in mid-winter, the darkest part of the year. The term came from the practice of burning a real log in a huge fireplace, and in the traditions and superstitions of a pagan religion. Both the cake and the log are still around today as part of family Christmas customs. But how did they originate? To answer that, we must first look at the time when the custom began.
The Pagan Plea
We start by imagining primitive people at the mercy of the elements in mid-winter. The days were short, the nights cold and the shadows loomed dark and threatening. They believed their survival and even good fortune depended upon the capricious nature of their gods. The thing these people wanted desperately was for the sun to come back, bringing warmth, longer days and fertile soils. It made sense to these people that the gods would demand a sacrifice in return for these mercies.
The sacrifices began during a period noted on the Roman calendar that included the eighth of January, a date that coincides with December 25th on the Christian calendar. The guili, or yule celebration included two animals. The more fortunate of the animals involved was a goat, which was not sacrificed. It represented the god of harvest and of sun, a being called Devac who was represented by a white goat, or it may represent the god Thor who was carried around the heavens on a chariot drawn by goats. Either way, the figure played an important part in the yule observances. A person dressed as a goat went from house to house demanding treats, in one custom. Later, the goat was led by a figure who resembled Saint Nicholas. In some Scandinavian versions of the goat-figure, it was secretly left in the homes of unsuspecting village people as a prank, and they had to rid themselves of it in the same manner.
The yule goat was fortunate; it lived to see another winter. The yule Boar ( wild pig) was a different matter. The winter saw its end at this time of year, and Scandinavian pagans were left wondering if the coming year would be good to them, or if the icy intemperate weather would play havoc over their lives. In order to appease the gods who surely controlled the seasons, the boar was led into a celebration hall. People laid their hands on its bristles and swore oaths by them. Then the animal was slaughtered, cooked and served to the celebrants. The people thought that the boar was a symbol of the gods’ power and strength, an attribute passed on to them as they ate it.
What of the yule log? Well, families had two reasons for burning the log. First, it was warmth against the winter cold. It was originally a whole tree that families decorated with holly (which grew wild in many locations) pinecones and ivy, according to the website History.com. It was anointed with wine and salt and burned a bit each night until the end of the celebration. After the fire consumed the log, the ashes were collected and stored under the beds of the family members to guard against – of all things – fire and lightening. They were also said to have medicinal benefits. Spread among livestock and on crops, they were thought to ensure that they would be healthy and strong. Leftover pieces of the log were saved to serve as kindling for the next year’s blaze.
The Christian Footprint
Christian celebrations incorporated some of the pagan symbols, but gave them different meanings. The ashes, for instance, came to symbolize the sacrifice of Christ. Instead of a plea to the gods to bring back the sun’s warmth and safety, the warmth and light of the log were interpreted in candles as well as the log burning in the fireplace, and were said to welcome the Holy Family to the home.
In the fourth century, Pope Julius the First created a festival to replace the pagan ideas, and he set its date as December 25th so that it would coincide with the pagan celebration. He even made a play on the words to cement the union: it was the “birthday of the invincible sun.”
As time went on, hearths became smaller, and it was no longer practical to drag a tree into the house and stuff it, trunk first, into the fireplace. People still burned logs, however, and some even got the notion of baking log-shaped cakes on their hearths to hearken back to the Yule log. That custom dates back to the 1600s when a recipe for a yule cake appeared.
Although the yule celebrations stem largely from pagan Scandinavian beliefs, the customs spread quickly to other parts of the world. The actual logs are called “Mocks” in England. They are primarily oak. In Scotland, the log is birch and there is a traditional tug of war before it is burned. The French use cherry wood for their yule logs. Before burning them, wine is poured over the logs. In Norway, the logs are spruce or maybe pine. In Ireland, the faithful burn candles instead of logs. Not only do the candles serve to welcome the Holy Family, they were codes that signaled Catholic priests to enter the homes to celebrate mass at a time when the Irish were forbidden Catholic rituals. In America, although people still burned the logs, they really took to the cake likenesses.
The Yule Log Cake
Traditionally, this is a chocolate sponge cake that is turned out onto a pad, spread with a cream filling, and then rolled up. They are decorated with chocolate icing and marzipan or meringue mushrooms and pinecones. The cakes can be highly realistic or just made for fun.
We have come a long way from those pagan beliefs. We don’t burn yule logs and save the ashes to hide under our beds. We no longer sacrifice animals at yule celebrations to bargain with the gods. Just in case we get to feeling superior in our modern ways, though, we need to stop and ponder. Why is it that the most popular traditional meat served at Christmas dinners is the ham?