The story of the Yule Log dates back to the 11th century Norsemen and has its roots in Viking mythology. Today's Yule Log traditions are, fortunately for us, much easier to enjoy.
Viking Yule Logs
The Norsemen celebrated the winter solstice by burning the biggest log they could find on their property, or their neighbor's property. Horses and oxen were often needed to transport the log to a ceremonial burning place.
The Yule Log was burned in honor of Odin, the father of all the gods. Yule is the Norse term for the sun, so the Yule Log was burned to celebrate the sun, to erase the bad happenings from the previous year and to celebrate a new start for the new year. Odin was known by many names in Viking mythology, including Wodan, which is the origin of "Wednesday."
Spreading the Tradition
Invading Vikings brought the Yule Log tradition to Britain in 1066. From there, it evolved into many different traditions. Pagan Britons followed the Viking tradition closely in the early days, finding the largest log available and burning it in a town square. People would toss sprigs of holly into the fire to bring good luck in the coming year.
As Christianity spread throughout Europe, many of the older pagan rituals were absorbed into Christian holiday traditions. The Yule Log ceased to be a Winter Solstice event and was moved to Christmas Day. Today, families in England still burn a Yule Log on Christmas to ensure good luck in the coming year.
Other Yule Log Traditions
Variations on the tradition include burning a Yule Log while each family member tells of a favorite memory from the previous year. Families who don't have a fireplace will bore holes into a Yule Log to hold candles, rather than burning it. The candles are lit, and people tell of their favorite memories and wish for a fresh start to the new year.
A Yule Log cake is used in the same manner. Candles are added to the cake and allowed to burn while people recall their favorite memories.
If a Yule Log is burned, a piece from the burned log is kept to help light the next year's Yule Log. Some families in France burn small pieces of the Yule Log each night of the 12 days of Christmas. A cherry tree, rather than a birch tree, is used for this tradition.