Even before there was a Christmas, burning a Yule log during the winter holidays was a tradition. It signified that it was time for friends and family to gather for songs, stories and fun, and until the Yule log burned out, there was no more work.
In early days, the Yule log was burned to celebrate the winter solstice. Yule, or Yule-tide, was initially celebrated by Germanic peoples as a pagan religious festival. It ran from several weeks before the winter solstice to a couple weeks after, as this was the coldest and darkest time of the year.
When Pope Julius I decided to celebrate Christmas around the time of the Winter Solstice during the fourth century, the Yule log tradition continued, but the meaning of the event changed as the old pagan beliefs were replaced. Rather than representing the light of the sun, the light from the burning log now represented the light of Jesus Christ.
Traditionally, a big log was brought into the home or a larger gathering place on or about Christmas Eve. People would sing and tell stories while children danced and played. The log was even decorated, and food and wine were placed upon it as offerings. It was also a way of starting the New Year with a fresh start, as a person’s mistakes and shortcomings were burned in the flame of the log. The log was never allowed to burn completely, however. Leftover pieces were kept in the house to start next year’s log and to bring good luck. It was believed those pieces would protect the home from fire, lightning or other acts of nature. Ashes of the log were also placed in wells to keep the water good and were spread beneath trees, vines and crops to ensure a bountiful harvest.
Today, people still burn yule logs during the holidays. And hopefully it’s still bringing good luck!