The Yule log was an ancient custom that was later adopted by Christians. This is also known as the Christmas clog.
This practice originally grew from the use of bonfires in Northern Europe, which were traditionally lit for the winter solstice. The log was lit after sunset on Christmas Eve and burned all Christmas day. At some point in history the log was brought indoors into the fireplace.
This practice may have started in Scandinavia. There they burned a log all night at the end of the year to banish the evil of the old year and to rekindle the heart fire. After the log was burned, the ashes were scattered here and there to assure good luck in the new year.
The Yule log was common among the ancient Celts. It was used by the Druids to honor their sacred oaks. They chose a special oak log and burned it for Saturnalia, the winter solstice festival.
The Vikings and other Northern Europeans, particularly the Germanic tribes, used the Yule log for winter festivals. The Vikings sought to destroy their bad qualities by burning the log. A log as big as the fireplace was preferred so it would last for 12 days. It could either be a whole tree trunk or a large log. This was chosen on Candelmas Day and allowed to dry over the summer months so it would burn well at Christmas.
On Christmas Eve it was ceremoniously brought into the house and lit from the remaining part of the hold Yule log that had been saved from the previous year.
In the 19th century, the Yule log was common in Northern Europe, Italy, France, and Serbia. Different kinds of trees were preferred in different places. Fruit trees were often chosen in Provence, while in Scotland a birch was preferred. Others used beech, olive, or green oak.
Some people lit the log on Christmas Eve, while others burned it on Christmas day. In any case, it needed to burn all day. Otherwise, this could bring bad luck. The best outcome was for it to burn throughout the 12 days of Christmas. In some places a communal fire was kept so that anyone whose log had gone out could get fire. It was supposedly bad luck for individuals to give fire to someone during that period, an obscure belief that dates back to Roman times.
The early Christian church adapted the use of this pagan symbol to the new religion. They gave it a new meaning, and said it now represented “the destruction of heathen beliefs and the acceptance of Christ as the light of the world.”
The first use indoors is believed to have been in Germany in the Middle Ages. It was common among the Christians in Europe by the 12th century. Under the feudal system in France, the peasants had to pay an annual tax to the lord of the manor by bringing a large log on Christmas Eve to the manor house.
This was used indoors in England in the 1600s. It was mentioned in a 16th century poem by English poet Robert Herrick. The Yule log was very popular in the Victorian era.
Once modern homes had alternative sources of heat and light the use of the Yule log was largely discontinued. In addition, many modern fireplaces are too small to hold a large Yule log.