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Dossier: Day 2 of Victorian Christmas Past (The Yule Log)

From ancient 12-day log burnings to the Bûche de Noël—or Yule log cake.

Join the Brighton History Detective on a journey to Victorian Christmas Past, the origin of our Christmas present. Step back in time to each of the 12 days of Christmas Past with a special Victoriana Investigation by the Brighton History Detective®. She has revealed the details of her findings in a special portfolio, 12 Days of Christmas Past, each day revealing a new dossier of a treasured Victorian tradition. Here is Day 2.

The Yule Log, an ancient to Victorian tradition

The Yule Log has been “rolled” into many eras in history, from ancient times to Victorian to Christmas Present. It is believed to have first been practiced in mid-winter Yule celebrations, involving Norse Paganism honoring their god Odin (who bore the name “the Yule one”). This is also where the name for the celebration of “Yuletide” originates.

The Magical Properties of Norse & Celtic Beliefs

During Winter’s shortened days without sun (and lost opportunities to plant and harvest), the Pagan cultures of the Norse and Celtic, believed the Yule log was able to harness magical properties. They would burn a massive log, usually an entire tree, during Winter Solstice to honor the Sun and ward off evil spirits.

The Yule Log is Brought Indoors

In later eras, the tradition transitioned to bringing a log inside, one large enough to burn for the 12 days of Christmas. A great blazing fire became the hub of the family Christmas. Families would choose a Yule log on Christmas Eve, wrap it in hazel twigs and drag it home to burn in the fireplace. Tradition also dictated to keep back a piece of the old Yule log to light with a new Yule log the following year.

As a Christian Holiday Emblem, & Its Out-lawed Period

As Europe transitioned from Paganism to Christianity, the Yule log evolved into a Christian holiday emblem. Although, when Oliver Cromwell’s English government made an effort to remove excessive merry-making from Christmas, all festive get-togethers were deemed against the law in 1644. The movement was generated by popular Puritan beliefs that customs, such as Yule logs, carol-singing, and even nativity pageants, promoted Paganism and Roman Catholic idolatry. However, the Yule log and other treasured traditions of Christmas were once again freely embraced after 1660, when the restrictive legislation was repealed.

Urban Development's Tabletop Yule Log

The Yule log tradition transitioned once again with industrialization and urban development. As populations moved from the country and large country estates into the cities, the city fireplaces were less able to accommodate the large Yule log size. A small log, fitted with candles, was substituted to create a table centerpiece. The French are then credited with creating an edible version, made of rolled sponge cake and icing, and decorated to resemble a log  the Bûche de Noël or yule log cake.

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