Yule log

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An illustration of people collecting a Yule log from Chambers Book of Days (1832) Chambers Yule Log.png
An illustration of people collecting a Yule log from Chambers Book of Days (1832)

The Yule log, Yule clog, or Christmas block is a specially selected log burnt on a hearth as a Christmas tradition in a number of countries in Europe. The origin of the folk custom is unclear. Numerous scholars[ who? ] have observed that, like other traditions associated with Yule (such as the Yule boar), the custom may ultimately derive from Germanic paganism.

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Christmas holiday originating in Christianity, usually celebrated on December 25 (in the Gregorian or Julian calendars)

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Contents

After the Christianization of Scandinavia, it may have been incorporated into the Christian celebration of Christmas there, with the pagan significance no longer remaining. [1] However, as there are no reliable existing references to a Christmas log prior to the 16th century, the burning of the Christmas block may have been an early modern invention by Christians unrelated to the pagan practice. [2]

Christianization of Scandinavia spread of Christianity in Scandinavia between the 8th and the 12th centuries

The Christianization of Scandinavia, as well as other Nordic countries and the Baltic countries, took place between the 8th and the 12th centuries. The realms of Denmark, Norway and Sweden established their own Archdioceses, responsible directly to the Pope, in 1104, 1154 and 1164, respectively. The conversion to Christianity of the Scandinavian people required more time, since it took additional efforts to establish a network of churches. The Sami remained unconverted until the 18th century. Newer archaeological research suggests there were Christians in Götaland already during the 9th century, it is further believed Christianity came from the southwest and moved towards the north.

Regardless of its origin, for the Christian feast of Christmas, the yule log symbolizes 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." [1] [3]

Origins

In Santa Claus, A Biography, historian Gerry Bowler notes [4] that the yule log was one of the most widespread Christmas traditions in early modern Europe, with the first recording of its appearance dating to 1184. Bowler notes that the tradition's roots are debated—some saying it is an "enfeebled version of the ancient Celtic human sacrifices" and others saying it's simply related to a feudal obligation of acquiring firewood. Nevertheless, the log was a huge block, lasting for the Twelve Days of Christmas, and it was not burned completely its first year: part of it was saved to light the following year's yule log. [5] While the mostly burned wood waited for its duty to light a new yule log, it was kept around the house to ward off a range of misfortunes, including toothaches, mildew, lightning, housefires, hail and chilblains (an inflammation of small blood vessels brought on from exposure to cold). [6] The log had other magical properties, particularly in parts of Northern Spain and Southern France. There, Bowler notes, "a remarkable feature of the log's powers is its ability to defecate gifts." [6] (in reference to the Catalan "caga tió")

Twelve Days of Christmas holiday spanning December 25th to January 5th

The Twelve Days of Christmas, also known as Twelvetide, is a festive Christian season celebrating the Nativity of Jesus. In most Western ecclesiastical traditions, "Christmas Day" is considered the "First Day of Christmas" and the Twelve Days are 25 December – 5 January, inclusive. For many Christian denominations—for example, the Anglican Communion and Lutheran Church—the Twelve Days are identical to Christmastide, but for others, e.g., the Roman Catholic Church, Christmastide lasts longer than the Twelve Days of Christmas.

Inflammation signs of activation of the immune system

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Catalan Countries Territories where Catalan is the native language

Catalan Countries refers to those territories where the Catalan language, or a variant of it, is spoken. They include the Spanish regions of Catalonia, Valencia, the Balearic Islands and parts of Aragon and Murcia, as well as Roussillon in France, the Principality of Andorra, and the city of Alghero in Sardinia (Italy). In the context of Catalan nationalism, the term is sometimes used in a more restricted way to refer to just Catalonia, Valencia and the Balearic Islands. The Catalan Countries do not correspond to any present or past political or administrative unit, though most of the area belonged to the Crown of Aragon in the Middle Ages. Parts of Valencia (Spanish) and Catalonia (Occitan) are not Catalan-speaking.

According to the Dictionary of English Folklore, the first "clear" references to the tradition appear in the 17th century, and thus it is unclear where or when the custom extends. [7]

However, it has long been observed that the custom may have much earlier origins, extending from customs observed in Germanic paganism. As early as 1725, Henry Bourne sought an origin for the Yule log in Anglo-Saxon paganism:

Germanic paganism

Germanic paganism refers to the ethnic religion practiced by the Germanic peoples from the Iron Age until Christianisation during the Middle Ages. From both archaeological remains and literary sources, it is possible to trace a number of common or closely related beliefs throughout the Germanic area into the Middle Ages, when the last pagan areas in Scandinavia were Christianized. Rooted in Proto-Indo-European religion, Proto-Germanic religion expanded during the Migration Period, yielding extensions such as Old Norse religion among the North Germanic peoples, the paganism practiced amid the continental Germanic peoples, and Anglo-Saxon paganism among the Old English-speaking peoples. Germanic religion is best documented in several texts from the 10th and 11th centuries, where they have been best preserved in Scandinavia and Iceland.

Anglo-Saxon paganism

Anglo-Saxon paganism, sometimes termed Anglo-Saxon heathenism, Anglo-Saxon pre-Christian religion, or Anglo-Saxon traditional religion, refers to the religious beliefs and practices followed by the Anglo-Saxons between the 5th and 8th centuries AD, during the initial period of Early Medieval England. A variant of the Germanic paganism found across much of north-western Europe, it encompassed a heterogeneous variety of disparate beliefs and cultic practices, with much regional variation.

Our Fore-Fathers, when the common Devices of Eve were over, and Night was come on, were wont to light up Candles of an uncommon Size, which were called Christmas-Candles, and to lay a Log of Wood upon the Fire, which they termed a Yule-Clog, or Christmas-Block. These were to Illuminate the House, and turn the Night into Day; which custom, in some Measure, is still kept up in the Northern Parts. It hath, in all probability, been derived from the Saxons. For Bede tells us, That [sic] this very Night was observed in this Land before, by the Heathen Saxons. They began, says he, their Year on the Eight of the Calenders of January, which is now our Christmas Party: And the very Night before, which is now Holy to us, was by them called Mædrenack , or the Night of the Mothers … The Yule-Clog therefore hath probably been a Part of those Ceremonies which were perform'd that Night's Ceremonies. It seems to have been used, as an Emblem of the return of the Sun, and the lengthening of the Days. For as both December and January were called Guili or Yule, upon Account of the Sun's Returning, and the Increase of the Days; so, I am apt to believe, the Log has had the Name of the Yule-Log, from its being burnt as an Emblem of the returning Sun, and the Increase of its Light and Heat. This was probably the Reason of the custom among the Heathen Saxons; but I cannot think the Observation of it was continued for the same Reason, after Christianity was embraced. …" [8]

More recently, G. R. Willey (1983) says:

Communal bon-bons with feasting and jollification have a pagan root—ritual bonfires at the beginning of November once signaled the start of another year and the onset of winter. Their subsequent incorporation into the Christian calendar, to become part and parcel of the festival of Christmas, and, later, their association with the New Year (January 1st) is an intriguing story. Many, if not all, of the various customs and traditions at one time extensively witnessed at Christmas and the 'old' New Year stem from this common source, e.g. Twelfth Night bonfires, including 'Old Meg' from Worcestershire and burning the bush from Herefordshire, first footing, etc. … Any traces of primitive ritual such as scattering of burnt ashes or embers as an omen of fertilisation or purification have long since disappeared. [9]

The events of Yule were generally held to have centred on Midwinter (although specific dating is a matter of debate), and feasting, drinking, and sacrifice ( blót ) were involved. Scholar Rudolf Simek comments that the pagan Yule feast "had a pronounced religious character" and that "it is uncertain whether the Germanic Yule feast still had a function in the cult of the dead and in the veneration of the ancestors, a function which the mid-winter sacrifice certainly held for the West European Stone and Bronze Ages." Yule customs and the traditions of the Yule log, Yule goat, and Yule boar ( Sonargöltr ) are still reflected in the Christmas ham, Yule singing, and others, which Simek takes as "indicat[ing] the significance of the feast in pre-Christian times." [10]

After the Christianization of Scandinavia, the yule log may have been incorporated into the Christian celebration of Christmas there, with the pagan significance no longer remaining. [1] However, as there are no reliable existing references to a Christmas log prior to the 16th century, the burning of the Christmas block may have been an early modern invention by Christians unrelated to the pagan practice. [2] [11] Regardless of its origin, for the Christian feast of Christmas, 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." [1] [3]

Modern practices

The Yule log is recorded in the folklore archives of much of England, but particularly in collections covering the West Country and the North Country. [7] For example, in his section regarding "Christmas Observances", J. B. Partridge recorded then-current (1914) Christmas customs in Yorkshire, Britain involving the Yule log as related by "Mrs. Day, Minchinhampton (Gloucestershire), a native of Swaledale". The custom is as follows:

The Yule log is generally given, and is at once put on the hearth. It is unlucky to have to light it again after it has once been started, and it ought not go out until it has burned away.
To sit around the Yule log and tell ghost stories is a great thing to do on this night, also card-playing.
Two large colored candles are a Christmas present from the grocery. Just before supper on Christmas Eve (where furmety is eaten), while the Yule log is burning, all other lights are put out, and the candles are lit from the Yule log by the youngest person present. While they are lit, all are silent and wish. It is common practice for the wish to be kept a secret. Once the candles are on the table, silence may be broken. They must be allowed to burn themselves out, and no other lights may be lit that night. [12]

H. J. Rose records a similar folk belief from Killinghall, Yorkshire in 1923: "In the last generation the Yule log was still burned, and a piece of it saved to light the next year's log. On Christmas morning something green, a leaf or the like, was brought into the house before anything was taken out." [13]

The Yule log is also attested as a custom present elsewhere in the English-speaking world, such as the United States. Robert Meyer, Jr. records in 1947 that a "Yule-Log Ceremony" in Palmer Lake, Colorado had occurred since 1934. He describes the custom: "It starts with the yule log [sic] hunt and is climaxed by drinking of wassail around the fire." [14]

Regional names

The term "Yule log" is not the only term used to refer to the custom. It was commonly called a "Yule Clog" in north-east England, and it was also called the "Yule Block" in the Midlands and West Country and "Gule Block" in Lincolnshire. In Cornwall, the term "Stock of the Mock" was found. [15]

Non-English indigenous names in the British Isles include ”Boncyff Nadolig “ or “Blocyn y Gwyliau” (the Christmas Log or the Festival Block) in Wales, Yeel Carline (the Christmas Old Wife) in Scotland and Bloc na Nollaig (the Christmas Block) in Ireland. [16]

The custom of burning a Yule log for one or more nights starting on Christmas Eve was also formerly widespread in France, where the usual term is bûche de noël. This may derive from a custom requiring peasants to bring a log to their lord. In Burgundy, gifts would be hidden under the log. Prayers were offered as the log was lighted in Brittany and in Provence, where the custom is still widely observed and called cacho fio (blessing of the log): the log, or branch from a fruit-bearing tree, is first paraded three times around the house by the grandfather of the family, then blessed with wine; it is often lighted together with the saved ashes of the previous year's log. [17] [18] Other regional names include cosse de Nau in Berry, mouchon de Nau in Angoumois, chuquet in Normandy, souche in the Île de France, and tréfouiau in the Vendée. [19] The custom has now long been replaced by the eating of a log-shaped cake, also named Bûche de Noël . [20] [21]

Baltic people also have a similar ritual called "log pulling" (Latvian : bluķa vilkšana; Lithuanian : blukio vilkimo) where people in a village would drag a log (Latvian : bluķis; Lithuanian : blukis) or a tree stump through the village at the winter solstice and then at the end burn it. [22]

Catalan People have a similar tradition, where "Tió", a magic log with a smiling face that lives in the forest, is brought home, and "fed" before Christmas. Singing children beat Tió with sticks and cover him with a blanket to make Tió defecate nougat candy and small gifts.

Ashen faggot

Similarities have been observed with the custom of the ashen faggot, recorded solely in the West Country of England. First recorded at the beginning of the 19th century and occurring up until at least 2003 in some areas, the ashen faggot is burnt on Christmas Eve, is associated with a variety of folk beliefs, and is "made of smaller ash sticks bound into a faggot with strips of hazel, withy, or bramble". [23] G. R. Wiley observes that the ashen faggot may have developed out of the Yule log. [9]

Analogues

As early as Jacob Grimm in the early 18th century, scholars have observed parallels between the South Slavic custom of the Badnjak and the Yule log tradition. [24] As observed by M. E. Durham (1940), the Badnjak is a sapling that is placed on the hearth on Christmas Eve. Varying customs involving the Badnjak may be performed, such as smearing it with fowl blood or goat blood and the ashes may be "strewn on the fields or garden to promote fertility on New Year's Eve". [25]

Notes

  1. 1 2 3 4 Collins, Ace (2010). Stories Behind the Great Traditions of Christmas. Zondervan. p. 191. ISBN   9780310873884.
  2. 1 2 Weiser, Franz Xaver (1958). Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs. Harcourt.
  3. 1 2 Grimassi, Raven (2000). Encyclopedia of Wicca & Witchcraft . Llewellyn Worldwide. p. 465. ISBN   9781567182576. The Yule log tradition continued, but the fire came to represent the light of Jesus Christ instead of the light of the sun.
  4. Santa Claus, A Biography. Gerry Bowler. McCellend & Stewart Ltd. 2005. Page 25.
  5. Santa Claus, a Biography. Gerry Bowler. McClelland & Stewart. 2005. Page 26.
  6. 1 2 Santa Claus, a Biography. Gerry Bowler. McClelland & Stewart. 2005. Page 26
  7. 1 2 Simpson and Roud (2003:402–403).
  8. Bourne (1740:155–162).
  9. 1 2 Wiley (1983:42).
  10. Simek (2007:379–380).
  11. Mosteller, Angela (2010). Christmas. Holiday Classics Publishing. Furthermore, since there is no historical evidence for a “Christmas Log” prior to the 16th century (a time by which Europe had long been Christianized), it is possible that Christians began a new tradition that had no real connection to the ancient pagan practice (other than the name "yule").
  12. Partridge (1914:375–376).
  13. Rose (1923:157).
  14. Meyer (1947:370).
  15. Hutton (1996:3839).
  16. Hutton (1996:39).
  17. Christmas in France, Chicago: World Book, 1996, ISBN   9780716608769, p. 55.
  18. Arnold van Gennep, Manuel de folklore français contemporain Part 1: Les cérémonies familiales à la tombe Volume 7 Part 1: Cycle des douze jours: tournées et chansons de quète – personnification du cycle, feux, bûchers et brandons mobiles, la bûche et le tison de Noël, Paris: Picard, (1958) 1987, ISBN   9782708400740, pp. 211860 (in French)
  19. Roger Dévigne, Le légendaire des provinces françaises à travers notre folklore, Paris: Horizons de France, 1950, OCLC   4351361, repr. Pygmalion, 1978, p. 204, (in French).
  20. "The Delicious History of the Yule Log". HISTORY.com. Retrieved 2017-12-08.
  21. "Yule Log - History and Traditions". Official website for tourism in France. Retrieved 2017-12-08.
  22. A History of Pagan Europe, Prudence Jones p. 174 Psychology Press, 1995
  23. Simpson and Roud (2003:11).
  24. Grimm (1882:52).
  25. Durham (1940:83–89).

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