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 became folded 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 at this time of year animals that could not be fed through the winter were slaughtered, 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 writing in Germany in 1184, and subsequently in later medieval accounts. Seventeenth-century poet Robert Herrick provided the first mention of the custom of procuring a yule log in England, where in some parts the log might also be called the yule clog or yule block. The ceremonious lighting of the log was accompanied by feasting, singing and merriment. The last portion of the log was commonly saved, since it was believed to protect the home and its occupants until the following year, when it served as kindling for another year’s 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 subsequent use of the 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 when 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.
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 film 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 celebration pinata, blindfolded children who struck at a hollow burlap-covered log were rewarded with candies. 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. One of the end pieces is then placed atop the log. After the cake is iced, the extra piece looks like a “bump” on a log. Once you finish frosting the cake, 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 buche de noel look as if it were freshly dusted in snow.
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
a mocha cake with coffee cream filling and chocolate glaze
a cocoa cake with a light chocolate cream
a different take on the traditional form, with orange cream cheese frosting