One of my magical childhood memories from growing up in Washington, D.C., is visiting the Pageant of Peace on the Ellipse at Christmas time—an annual tradition started by President Calvin Coolidge in 1923, hosted ever since by the National Park Service. After the lighting of the national Christmas tree—scheduled for December 5 this year—the Pageant is held through New Year’s Day with a “Pathway of Peace” created by 56 trees from every state and territory, decorated with hand-made ornaments, accompanied by nightly singing by community choirs and musical groups, including my church choir a few of those years. There was even a live reindeer in those days! I’ll never forget the chilly, festive walk with crowds of locals and tourists among all those beautiful trees, and—in my day—stopping to warm ourselves around the huge, brightly burning Yule log. A deep pit had been dug, at least 6’ long, to hold it—deep enough to keep visitors safely away from the burning embers, but still let the flames rise just above ground level. I can still remember the crackling sound, glow of flying sparks, and heady smell of woodsmoke. www.nps.gov/whho/planyourvisit/national-christmas-tree.htm
Like wassail, Twelfth Night, and mistletoe, the holiday tradition of the Yule log derives from ancient European customs. One form of the world Yule was guili, which referred to the midwinter period in the Roman calendar surrounding the winter solstice—usually on December 21 or 22. The Old Norse term jól referred to a twelve-day pagan festival feast celebrated at the solstice, which became Yule in Scandinavia and other parts of Europe. The custom of burning the Yule log started well before medieval times as part of this winter solstice celebration. Scholars theorize that, as Christianity began to spread through Europe, Pope Julius I (337-352) set the Christmas feast day—“Christ’s mass” that celebrates the birth of Jesus—on December 25 to align with the pagan holiday. Other pagan traditions, such as the Yule “goat” (the last sheaf of grain harvested) and sacrificial Yule boar, are still reflected in the Christmas ham and Yuletide singing, or wassailing.
Yuletide was the darkest time of year, so people celebrated the ‘return of light’ represented by the lengthening of days after the solstice. The Yule log was symbolic of the Sun’s re-emergence and the land’s rebirth. Regardless of its origin, for Christians the Yule log came to symbolize the battle between good and evil: “as the fire grew brighter and burned hotter, and as the log turned into ashes, it symbolized Christ’s final and ultimate triumph over sin” (Collins, Ace Stories Behind the Great Traditions of Christmas, 2010).
In medieval England and Europe, the Yule log was lit on Christmas Eve and kept burning through the twelve days of Christmas, until Twelfth Night on January 5. It was considered unlucky to buy your Yule log; it had to be gifted, or cut from your own or a neighbor’s land. When the log was finally allowed to burn out on Twelfth Night, a piece of half-burned wood was preserved and used to light next year’s log. This fragment of the Yule log was “kept around the house to ward off a range of misfortunes, including toothaches, mildew, lightning, house fires, hail, and chilblains” (wikipedia.org). Different kinds of wood were preferred in different countries. In England, oak is traditional; in Scotland, it is birch; while in France, it’s cherry. Also in France, the log is sprinkled with wine before it is burnt, so that it smells nice when it is lit (whychristmas.com).
In France, the Yule log was called the Bûche de Noël—these days memorialized with a log-shaped sponge cake of the same name that is eaten on Christmas Eve. The cake is filled with cream, iced with chocolate, and decorated to resemble a log—sometimes with marzipan mushrooms. Some still do light bonfires on the winter solstice—which this year falls on December 21—to welcome the return of light. May your fires burn brightly this holiday season and throughout the new year!