Yule is a Winter Solstice festival that has been celebrated in Northern Europe since ancient times. In pre-Christian times, Germans celebrated Yule from late December to early January. During the process of Christianization, Yule was placed on December 25, in order to correspond with the Christian celebration. Thus, the terms “Yule” and “Christmas” are often used interchangeably especially in Christmas carols. Many of the symbols associated with Christmas are derived from this traditional pagan Yule celebration. The burning of the Yule log, the decorating of Christmas trees, the eating of ham, the hanging of boughs, holly, mistletoe, etc. are all historically practices associated with Yule.
Burning a Yule log is probably the oldest Christmas tradition. In Scandinavia, Yule ran from several weeks before the winter solstice to a couple weeks after, which was the darkest time of year. There was quite a bit of ritual tied to the Yule log as it marked the sun’s rebirth from its southern reaches. As the big log was brought into a home or large hall, songs were sung, stories told, and children danced. Personal mistakes were said to be burned in the flame so everyone’s new year would start with a clean slate. The log was never allowed to burn completely; a bit was kept in the house to start next year’s log. The log was said to predict bad luck; if the fire went out during the night, tragedy would strike the home in the coming year. The log also brought good luck; any pieces that were kept, protected a house. Ashes of the log would be placed in wells to keep the water good or placed at the roots of fruit trees and vines to help them bear a good harvest.
In the fourth century AD, when Pope Julius I decided to celebrate Christmas around the Winter Solstice, the Yule log tradition continued, but the fire came to represent the light of the Savior instead of the light of the sun. The burning of the Yule log marked the beginning of Christmas celebrations. In Appalachia, as long as the log burned, you could celebrate, therefore a very large log was chosen and soaked in a stream to ensure a nice long celebration. In the early nineteenth century, American slaves didn’t have to work as long as the Yule log burned, so they would choose the biggest, greenest log they could find. If they did have to work while it burned, their master had to pay them for the work.
In England the log was supposed to burn for the twelve days of Christmas, from Christmas eve on December 24th to Epiphany on January 6th. Some English Yule logs were large enough that a team of horses were required to drag it to the castle or manor. Some English preferred a log from an ash tree. In the Slavic and other countries oak was the wood of choice. Almost everywhere, the fire was started with that bit of the last year’s log, to symbolize continuity and the eternal light of heaven.
In some parts of France, a special carol was sung when the log was brought into the home. The carol prayed for health and fertility of mothers, nanny-goats, ewes, and an abundant harvest. The French were probably the first to eat their Yule logs. They started out burning them like everyone else, but when big open fireplaces began to disappear in France, they moved the tradition to the table by making a cake roll that looked like a Yule log, called a “Buche de Noel”.
So how do we transform this to make it a reminder of the birth of Jesus Christ?
The Yule log was to take away the mistakes of the last year. We know that Jesus came to take away our mistakes. Romans 3:22 We are made right in God’s sight when we trust in Jesus Christ to take away our sins. And we all can be saved in this same way, no matter who we are or what we have done.
The Yule log was not allowed to burn up completely. Be reminded from this that Jesus Christ is eternal. Rev. 1:8 “I am the Alpha and the Omegaâ€”the beginning and the end,” says the Lord God. “I am the one who is, who always was, and who is still to come, the Almighty One.”
The Yule log represented the light of the sun during the dark winter: Remember that Jesus is our light in a dark world. John 8:12 Then Jesus spoke to them again, saying, “I am the light of the world. He who follows Me shall not walk in darkness, but have the light of life.”
What we are trying to do with these 25 Days of Christmas newsletters is to help you enjoy the traditional practices of Christmas and give them Spiritual meaning for your family. We have always tried to do this with our children as we didn’t want to be so different from the world that the world wouldn’t want what we have.
An old English historical writing contains a letter from Pope Gregory to Saint Mellitus, who was then on his way to England to conduct missionary work among the pagan Anglo-Saxons. Pope Gregory suggested that converting heathens would go easier if they were allowed to retain the outward forms of their traditional pagan practices and traditions, while reinterpreting those traditions spiritually towards the Christian God instead of to their pagan “devils”: “to the end that, whilst some gratifications are outwardly permitted them, they may the more easily consent to the inward consolations of the grace of God”.
Today we as Christians should hear what Pope Gregory said, and rather than condemn the dark practices of the world, we should try to live the “Light”. Remember Matthew 5:14 You are the light of the world.