St. Nicholas

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Advent Calendar for Grown-ups

by Paul Bommer

DECEMBER 15 Yule Log

Yule Log

Illustration by Paul Bommer
Used by permission

The Yule Log is a large wooden log which is burned in the hearth as a part of traditional Yule, or Christmas, celebrations in several European cultures.

The Yule log was originally an entire tree, that was carefully chosen and brought into the house with great ceremony with the purpose being to provide maximum warmth and endurance throughout the Twelve Days of Christmas (from Christmas Eve until the Feast of the Epiphany on 6th Jan). In some European traditions, the largest end of the log would be placed into the fire hearth while the rest of the tree stuck out into the room.

Ideally the log would be lit with a brand made from a remnant of last year's log, and it was hoped, and considered a sign of great luck, that the log would burn ardently across the twelve days.

The Yule log has frequently been associated with having its origins in the historical Germanic paganism which was practiced across northern Europe prior to Christianisation (as so much of Christmas has). One of the first people to do so was the English historian Henry Bourne, who, writing in the 1720s, described the practice occurring in the Tyne valley. Bourne theorised that the practice derives from customs in 6th to 7th century Anglo-Saxon pagan religious practice.

The log's role was primarily one of bringing prosperity and protection from evil—by keeping the remnant of the log all the year long the protection was said to remain across the year.

The Yule log was not only seen as a magical protective amulet in traditional British rural culture. There are many reports of rivalries occurring between members of a community as to who had the largest log.

The traditions of the Yule log died out in Britain in the latter 19th and early 20th century because of, according to historian and folklorist Prof. Ronald Hutton (a hero of mine), "the reduction in farm labour and the disappearance of the old-fashioned open hearths."

In English folklore, Father Christmas was often depicted carrying a Yule Log.

In France and Wallonia, and hence also in other francophone regions of the world, such as Quebec and in Lebanon, the Bûche de Noël ("christmas log") is a traditional dessert, in origin a facsimile of the actual yule log. The tradition of the yule log was discontinued as large fireplaces became an increasingly rarer feature of the average living room. The dessert is usually in the form of a large cylindrical 'roulade' cake, covered with chocolate icing forked to resemble the tree's bark—one end is then lopped off and stood on end to indicate the rings of the "log."

I have shown here a Quebecois lumberjack, Alain Hauteville, sitting on the Yule log he has just chopped down. The tree he chose was one that a childhood sweet-heart of his had written his initials into the bark of many moons before, before spurning him for a wealthy silk-merchant in Montreal. Its thirsty work, so young Al is enjoying a quick brew from his Thermos and a smoke before dragging the thing back to his cabin at the forest's edge.

From Paul Bommer: Illustration, design & Print-making. Used by permission.

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