The burning of the Yule Log is an integral part of the celebration of Yule, an ancient pagan festival practiced across the pre-Christian world. Yule is the celebration of the rebirth of the Sun God and coincides with the winter solstice. On the night of Yule, a carefully selected log would be brought into the home and ritualistically burned over twelve days. Since the log would be burned slowly over the entire twelve, days, it was nothing short of enormous, and in some cases was an entire tree. The larger end of the tree would be placed into the hearth while the remainder stuck out into the room. As the log burned down, it would be slowly pushed into the center of the heat.
Obtaining a Yule log was also considered something of importance and there were unwritten rules around it. The log or tree could be one that was harvested from the family’s land – meaning they owned the tree and chose to cut it down for the celebration. Another way to obtain a Yule log was to be gifted it from a friend or neighbor; the key thing that must be honored was that no money changed hands during the exchange. Yule logs cannot be purchased or “found.” When it came time to light the Yule log, it was also done ritualistically. The remnants of the prior years’ log would be brought out of hiding and used as kindling to start the new log. It was critical that a piece of the log would be kept from being consumed by fire and saved in a safe place for the next season. It was considered bad luck to allow your yule log to totally burn up or to burn out on its own. After twelve days, the yule log would be extinguished.
The ancient cultures believed that different types of wood were associated with various magickal and spiritual properties. Aspen would have been the wood of choice for spiritual understanding, while the mighty oak was a symbolic of strength and wisdom. A family hoping for a year of prosperity might burn a log of pine, while a couple hoping to be blessed with fertility would drag a bough of birch to their hearth. Today we find that 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. In Devon and Somerset in the UK, some people have a very large bunch of Ash twigs instead of the log. This comes from a local legend that Joseph, Mary and Jesus were very cold when the shepherds found them on Christmas Night. So the shepherds got some bunches of twigs to burn to keep them warm. The evolution from pagan to Christianity is shown as the years passed.
The spent embers of the yule log or spent wax from candles are tied up in a cloth for the entire year as a charm for protection, fertility, strength, and health and kept under the bed of the woman of the house, if she was worthy.
An ancient rhyme of unknown origin reflects the importance of the Yule Log and the impact it had;
May the log burn,
May the wheel turn,
May evil spurn,
May the Sun return