The Yule log was originally set alight in honour of the Norse God Thor; the God of strength, courage, might and of course lightning. Usually cut from an oak tree or sometimes ash, the log was burnt in sympathetic magic to encourage the return of the sun.
The log would have been lit with a remaining piece of the Yule log from the previous year, symbolising the end of one cycle and the beginning of another. Sprigs of holly were thrown onto the burning wood to encourage a year of good fortune, health and protection. The log was not left to burn completely, however, because the remaining pieces were crafted into sacred charms which would keep the wearer safe over the coming year.
In some parts of Scotland a similar tradition was observed, but instead of a log, a figure of an old woman was carved from an old tree trunk. The Cailleach Nolliach which means Old Winter’s Wife was brought into the house and laid onto a burning fire. The household would then gather and watch the figure be consumed by the flames. The Cailleach did not represent new life, she represented death. To avoid death and misfortune the carving was burnt to ashes.
Traditionally, those who followed the Norse tradition of Heathenry brought in the Yule log on Mother’s night (20th December). Before the log entered the longhouse, a procession took place with the decorated tree trunk decked out in ribbons and greenery and carried through the village. This was seen as a joyous occasion. After being lit, the huge tree trunk was expected to burn for twelve nights. Their homes were long houses, so this would not have been a problem. The log was seen as sacred and no one was allowed to walk barefoot near it or even squint!
In Yorkshire, England, it was customary for children to beg and sing from house to house as the Yule log was carried in. This tradition was called Mumping or Gooding.
Nowadays sadly, the only Yule logs we really see are chocolate ones found in the frozen section of the supermarket, but we can change this and start our own Yuletide tradition. For those of you who do not have an open fire or even a fire pit outside why not buy or make candle holders out of small branches and logs. Pinterest has many examples of Yule log candle holders. Eitherwise, another idea could be to actually buy a chocolate Yule log and put birthday candles in it. Blow them out and make a wish.
More Yuletide traditions tomorrow.