The traditional Christmas Yule log was once a very important part of the Christmas celebrations, though many people do not bother with this nowadays. The tradition started in Europe and many cultures participated in the ritual. It was brought over to America with the pilgrims, but the practice of obtaining and tending to the Yule log soon fell out of favor.
The earliest record of the Yule log goes back to eighteenth century Britain, although there is a theory that it could date back to seventh century Saxon paganism. The piece of wood had to be large and sizeable to be chosen to be the Yule log. Before adding it to the fire, remnants of the last year's Yule log-usually carefully saved under the bed of the master of the house--would be set alight, and once burning well, the appointed log for the coming year was added.
In addition to being an item of ceremonial value, there are also stories of competitions to see who had the largest Yule log. The log had to be kept burning all throughout the night of Christmas Eve, to help to ensure good fortune for the family for the upcoming year. The log needed to be obtained from the household's own property or that of a neighbor; it was considered very bad luck to exchange money for it. The new log had to light on the first time; it was considered very bad luck indeed for it not to catch. It was a great responsibility to be given the honor of lighting the log, and dirty hands were considered to be a sign of disrespect for the occasion.
The alighted Yule log had to burn for at least twelve hours. Leaving the Christmas Eve dinner table to tend to the log was considered to be another bad omen. Everyone had to have eaten their fill, and every crumb of food had to be either eaten or stored away before the fire could be tended.
Once the table had been sided and the shadows from the log were dancing against the wall, tales were told of Christmases from the past, and stories were formed around the figures found in the shadows. It was a bad omen to see a headless figure; this foretold yet more doom and gloom for the members of the house.
With the arrival of more mechanized farm machinery, less people were dependent on hired help, and the activities surrounding the traditional Christmas Yule log fell out of favor. In some places the tradition was replaced with the Yule candle. Many of the customs remained the same. The candle was lit around sunset on Christmas Eve. The candle was not to be purchased, so shops began selling materials for the making of candles, or even giving candles as a gesture of thanks to people who shopped there at Christmas time. The candle was to be kept burning all night, and the stub of the candle saved from that year until the next.
The traditions surrounding Yule logs and candles have all but faded, although they are still depicted in some nostalgic holiday scenes found on decorative tins or festive Christmas cards. Probably the most popular way this tradition is remembered is in the confection of a sweet cake, sometimes called the 'buche de noel.' This is a cake, similar to a roulade, made from sponge cake or genoise. It was baked on a large flat tray, frosted, then rolled into a log shape and the exterior frosted again. The icing was usually chocolate, and marked with a fork to resemble tree bark.
As more people look back to the old ways to bring new customs to their Christmas celebrations, the traditional Christmas Yule log is starting to make somewhat of a comeback. Decorations can be purchased that mimic the log, and candles can be placed in holders that look like branches and pine boughs. Whether a log, a candle, or a cake, the honoring ofthe traditional Christmas Yule log is sure to create a lasting memory.
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