The History of Yule
Some sources claim that the word “yule” derives from the Old Norse word for “wheel,” a reference to the cycle of the year. Language scholars think it more likely that yule derives from the Old English word “geol” or “geola,” from the Old Norse “jol,” which passed into English after Scandinavians invaded England and Scotland in the 9th and 10th centuries. As the customs of this pagan winter festival were incorporated into Christian beliefs, Yule and Yuletide became synonymous with Christmas and Christmastide by the 12th century. (The weeks surrounding the celebration of Christmas were called Christmas “tide,” in its original sense of “time.”)
Yule was widely celebrated throughout Europe around the time of the winter solstice. It is possible that the first yule festivals were held to take advantage of excess meat and drink, since winter meant the slaughter of animals that could not be fed through the cold months, and beverages set by earlier in the season were now fermented.
The Yule Log
The tradition of burning a large block of wood on the hearth at Christmas was first mentioned in Germany in 1184, and subsequently appeared in later medieval accounts. The 17th-century poet Robert Herrick wrote of the custom of procuring a yule log in England, where in some parts of the country the log might also be called the yule clog or yule block. Much feasting, singing and merriment accompanied the ceremonious lighting of the log. The celebrants commonly saved the last portion of the log, since it was believed to protect the home and its occupants until the following year, when it served as kindling for a new yule log.
Yule Log Customs and Superstitions
A yule log was a powerful symbol to ancient Europeans, who credited it with the ability to bring good fortune and prosperity to their families and to protect their homes from evil spirits. Numerous customs and superstitions came to surround the gathering and burning of the log, and the use of its ashes.
Beliefs and ceremonies varied from region to region. In Dalmatia, the log was adorned with leaves and flowers as it was conveyed to the home, where it was then sprinkled with wine or grain. In England, a person must have clean hands before he could successfully light the yule log. In Germany, a charred log taken from the hearth on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, called the Christbrand, was placed back on the fire whenever a storm threatened. Even the yule log’s ashes were credited with magical powers. People might sprinkle them under fruit trees to ensure fertility, place them in a well to sweeten water, or use them as a sort of charm to protect domestic animals from vermin.
The Modern Yule Log
You might think the yule log a thing of the past for urban families not in possession of a fireplace. But a mid-20th century television programming novelty based on a short film of a crackling fire provided the roots for a modern holiday tradition beloved by many. The station manager of New York City’s WPIX had the idea of presenting a commercial-free three-hour program called “The Yule Log,” consisting of a closeup shot on a log burning in a hearth and accompanied by Christmas music. The program debuted on December 24, 1966, and became an instant hit. The original 16mm film, shot at the New York mayor’s Gracie Mansion, was only 17 seconds long and ran in a continuous loop. Within a few years the station refilmed “The Yule Log” as a six-minute loop on 35mm film. This broadcast tradition continues today, appearing on Christmas Eve or Christmas morning on many television stations as well as at the website theyulelog.com.
The Edible Yule Log -- Buche de Noel
Eventually the yule log became a part of Christmas food traditions. In an old Catalonian custom reminiscent of a birthday pinata, blindfolded children struck at a hollow burlap-covered log to release candies and other sweets. By the late 19th century, an enterprising French pastry chef introduced a log-shaped cake called “buche de noel” or Christmas log. Such cakes were traditionally created by filling and rolling a genoise, or sponge cake. Some bakers go to great lengths to transform their buche de noel into a realistic-looking chocolate log. Many recipes instruct you to cut the rolled cake at both ends on the diagonal, much as you might when cutting a real log. You then afix one of the end pieces beside or atop the cake. Once you finish frosting the cake, the extra piece looks like a “bump” on a log. You can simulate the look of tree bark by running the tines of a fork through the buttercream frosting. Decorating with separate spirals on the cut ends of the log gives the appearance of tree rings. Sifting a bit of powdered sugar over the cake and serving plate makes your Christmas log look as if it were freshly dusted in snow.
Garnish for the buche de noel can take many forms. Fanciful meringue mushrooms, lightly browned at the edges and dusted with cocoa add to the realism of your “log”. If you wish to add more color to your cake, you can adorn it with ivy by piping on some green-tinted buttercream from a pastry bag. Or you can fashion green leaves and red holly berries from marzipan. While a yellow or chocolate cake filled and frosted with chocolate buttercream makes the most realistic-looking log, you needn’t confine yourself flavor-wise. You can make a less traditional but equally delicious buche de noel with yellow sponge cake rolled up with a delicate orange- or lemon-flavored mousse. Garnish with powdered sugar and strawberries or raspberries.
Buche de Noel Recipes
A search for buche de noel recipes provides inspiration for all kinds of log cakes, from simple to complex. To get you started, here are links to a few relatively simple recipes:
• Buche de Noel recipe from Betty Crocker
a simple yellow cake with whipped cream filling and chocolate buttercream frosting
• Mocha Buche de Noel from Good Housekeeping
a mocha cake with coffee cream filling and chocolate glaze
• Kris Kringle Buche de Noel from Nestle Kitchens
a cocoa cake with a light chocolate cream
• Orange Spice Buche de Noel from Bon Appetit
a different take on the traditional form, with orange cream cheese frosting
“Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain” by Ronald Hutton
“The World Encyclopedia of Christmas” by Gerry Bowler
"A Brief History of the Yule Log"; Time; Tim Morrison; Dec. 2008
Christmas Sleigh and Yule Log postcard illustration by Ellen Clapsaddle, 1907, in public domain
"Hauling of the Yule Log" by Robert Chambers, 1832, in the public domain
Fireplace by Stephanie Wallace Phogography
Buche de noel #1 by sudphoto
Buche de noel #2 by Joana Hard
Buche de noel #3 by Stephanie Kilgast