It’s no surprise that winter solstice traditions would involve fire – after all, this is the shortest day of the year and needs some brightening up. At Old World Stoneworks, we love to celebrate any excuse to have a roaring fire and light candles.
This week, we’re going to look at our favorite solstice tradition that goes way back: the Yule log.
We have the Scandinavians to thank for inventing the Yule log, which was subsequently popularized all over Europe. You’ll notice something familiar about the earliest incarnation of the Yule log: Revelers brought in an entire tree. Yes, that sounds like Christmas. But instead of decorating the tree, they lit it on fire! Using the end of last year’s log – which had been stashed away all year – they placed the tree on the hearth and burned it. Eventually this morphed into a log instead of a whole tree, and burning a little each day over the 12 days of Christmas.
In Provence, France, any leftover Yule log was traditionally kept in the house all year to protect against lightning. England had a couple of different Yule customs. Barrel makers distributed logs that weren’t fit to become barrels to their customers. In Cornwall, UK, people called the log “The Mock.” They dried out their logs and removed the bark before burning them. Some Eastern Europeans chop down a tree on the morning of Christmas Eve, then light it that night.
Types of wood also differed by country. The English favored oak, except in Somerset and Devon, where they burned huge bunches of ash twigs instead of logs. Scots burned birch. The French sprinkled cherry wood with wine before setting it aflame. The Irish often made do with a candle.
A Contemporary Yule Ritual
Solstice marks the passing of the old year and the beginning of the new, from the elemental perspective of days getting shorter, then starting to lengthen. It can be meaningful to mark this passing with family or friends.
So here’s a simple Yule ritual you can do together. Put a nice, dry oak log in your fireplace. If you want to make it more festive, decorate the log with burnable red ribbons made of natural fiber. Turn the house lights down. One person in the group can serve as the facilitator. She or he remarks upon the passing of the old year and the coming of the new. Everybody takes a couple of minutes to silently reflect on the passing year, its ups, downs and lessons.
Now it’s time to light the Yule log. As it burns, each participant throws in a dried holly sprig to bid the old year goodbye. This can be done with thoughts of gratitude, or with the desire to let go of painful happenings.
When the Yule log is blazing, the facilitator urges the group to ponder the upcoming year. Everybody gets to throw an acorn or twig into the fire as a symbol of the year ahead. If you’re a singing family, end with a seasonal song or two.
Yule Logs without the Fire
The Yule log tradition spawned delicious Yule log cakes. These were baked in hearths around Europe going back to the 1600s, if not earlier. Popular elements included sponge cake, marzipan and meringue. In the 19th century, Yule log cakes got fancied up in Parisian bakeries, where they were called bûche de Noël. Today’s Yule cakes are often covered with chocolate or crème de café to resemble wood. Glazed sugar gets sprinkled on top, and meringue mushrooms may surround the log. Experts suggest pairing the cake with a semi-sweet wine.
People who enjoy pyrotechnics – with adult supervision only, please – can have lots of fun with their Yule logs. Sprinkle the log with different chemicals and you’ll get colored flames! Simple table salt turns flames bright yellow, while borax results in vivid green. Potassium nitrate makes violet flames. Add copper sulphate, and your flames turn blue.
Gardeners should save the Yule log’s ashes, which can help flowers thrive. But don’t discard the ashes on Christmas day; this might bring bad luck, according to Old Wives Tales.
At Old World Stoneworks, we wish you a happy Yule season, with lots of cozy fires and delicious things to eat. Let us know if we can help make things even cozier with a hearth upgrade for your holiday home.