The Yule Log (or Yule Clog) was a huge block, frequently the root of a large tree, brought into the house with great ceremony, and accompanied by music. The custom was widespread in Europe and seems to have been the winter counterpart of the midsummer bonfire, kindled indoors instead of in the open air. Often the log to be burned at midwinter was chosen early in the year and set aside. The Yule log must never be bought but should be received as a gift, found or taken from you own property. Tradition varies about the type of wood to be used. Oak logs were popular in the north of England, birch in Scotland and ash in Cornwall and Devon. It was important that the Yule log be the biggest log available since the Christmas festivities would last only as long as the Yule log burned.
The Yule clog lay on the floor till all had sung their Yule songs, standing around it, and then it was placed on the hearth. It was lit with the brand of the last year’s log, carefully saved for the purpose, and music was to be played during the ceremony of lighting.
It was an evil omen if the log went out during the night.
The remains of the old log were ground to powder and strewed over the fields during the Twelve Nights, which was supposed to promote the growth of the crops. In some villages of Westphalia, the practice was to withdraw the Yule log from the fire as soon as it was slightly charred and it was then kept carefully to be placed on the fire whenever a thunderstorm broke, because the people believed that lightning would not strike a house in which the Yule log was smouldering. The ashes of the log were strewn on the fields to save the wheat from mildew.
In some parts of the Scottish Highlands, the head of the household would find a withered stump and carve it into the likeness of an old woman, the Cailleach Nollaich or Christmas Old Wife, a sinister being representing the evils of winter and death. Burning her drove away the winter and protected the occupants of the household from death.
© Anna Franklin, Yule, History, Lore and Celebration, Lear Books, 2015