Christmas Tradition of the Yule Log

Carol Morton
Adams County Master Gardener

The Christmas season stirs up many wonderful memories for each of us. We remember those past celebrations with our friends and families and the special traditions carried on year after year. For me the Christmas tree was special. Christmas morning, Dad wouldn’t let my brother and I come downstairs until he turned on the Christmas tree lights and the stereo that played those familiar carols. Dad was orphaned as a baby and Christmas was especially meaningful to him. He carried this tradition on until I left home to be married.

There are many Christmas traditions that have gone by the wayside. The burning of the Yule log is a Christmas tradition that has all but died in practice, but the custom lives on in nostalgic images of Christmas past. The following is an article provided by the Pennsylvania Forest Stewardship Program.

"An integral part of Christmas celebrations throughout Feudal Europe, the Yule log came to America directly from England, which inherited the tradition from the pagans of Northern Europe.

There were many regional variations on the ritual, but the English version—the one we know best—was probably the simplest. On Christmas Eve, members of the household ventured into the woods to find and cut a great tree, preferably an oak. Size was important, because the Yule log had to burn throughout the twelve days of Christmas. Once cut, the log was dragged home with much celebration. As many people as possible grabbed onto the ropes to help pull, because doing so was believed to bring good luck in the new year. Even passersby raised their hats in tribute.

The Yule log was dragged to the hearth of the great open fireplace—a common household feature in old England. The log was lit with a scrap of burned log carefully preserved from the previous year, a practice that ensured the continuity of good fortune not only from year to year, but also from generation to generation.

One popular aspect of the Yule log tradition was that no unnecessary work would take place in or around the household as long as the log burned. This season of merriment and reflection was a time for respite from daily labors.

When the twelve days of Christmas had passed, the remaining scraps of wood were stored carefully until the next year, when they would be needed to light another Yule log. The wood scraps usually were stored under the bed of the mistress of the household, where they held the promise of success to the entire manor. Historical accounts differ in the bundle’s specific function. Some say it protected the home from fire, some say from lightening, and still others from all manner of ailments during the coming year.

Sometimes Yule log ashes were mixed with livestock feed and spread on the fields to ensure the health of the manor’s animals and crops. Uncharred pieces of the log were often made into ceremonial plowshares to guarantee the fertility of the soil.

The Yule log ritual is one of many ceremonies and beliefs associated with our ancestors’ reverence for the living symbol of the forest. The origins of the Yule log are thought to lie in the ancient tradition of tree worship. In the days of the forest primeval, when wandering tribes began to settle in one spot, they cleared land for their dwellings but always left one central grove of trees. In the middle of the grove grew the "mother tree," which symbolized the source of all life for the ancient settlers.

Most of us feel the stirring of ancestral memory when we venture deep into the woods or sit in quiet contemplation before an open fire. But we also are rediscovering, on a more practical level, the many biological and environmental benefits of our forests. Acknowledging this vital link to our forests and the need to maintain them in perpetuity is the essence of "stewardship."

To make people more aware of the importance of our forest resources, the Pennsylvania Bureau of Forestry, Penn State’s School of Forest Resources, and numerous statewide associations and conservation organizations have, since 1991, promoted Pennsylvania’s Forest Stewardship Program as part of the US Forest Service’s nationwide effort. Forest Stewardship emphasizes the need to use and manage Pennsylvania’s valuable forest resources wisely—not only for our immediate benefit, but also for the good of future generations.

The Forest Stewardship Program provides a wealth of free information for anyone interested in maintaining healthy forest land throughout the state, whether for recreational or commercial use. Natural resource managers in both the private and public sectors can help Pennsylvanians become more familiar with the many ways forests enrich our lives, even when we live far from a forest. They also can help forest landowners create successful, long-term management plans for their land.

The ritual of the Yule log, which paid symbolic homage to humankind’s dependence on forests, lives on only in history. But those in the Forest Stewardship Program hope that Pennsylvanians will help keep healthy forests a reality, not just a memory, for the generations that follow."

The Adams County Master Gardeners sends greetings for a Merry Christmas and Holiday Season.

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