Essentially, the yule log is a piece of wood thrown on the fire at Christmas. But it has some interesting uses in different world traditions.
The Yule log actually has its roots in Germanic or Anglo-Saxon paganism, where a Yule log was burned to celebrate the winter solstice. Like the Christmas Tree, it’s another one of those things that more modern cultures have picked up and worked into the Christian Christmas holiday. (It’s also a tasty dessert roll like your Aunt brings to Christmas dinner.)
In English addition, the Yule log was traditionally burned in the fireplace, not just to be cheery, but to throw off more heat. The Yule log was chosen from good stocks of hardwood, and often partially burnt one year, then re-used the next year. English families would sit around the open hearth burning the Yule log, as well as a packet of kindling, that would signify good luck for the year to come — which helps us to answer the question of what people did before TV.
In parts of Spain, specifically Catalunya and some ‘Aragon’ regions, the Yule log tradition is quite a bit different. In these traditions, parents to set up the log at Christmas time, and make believe that it defecates small presents when children hit it with a stick. Sometimes, the log is dressed up with a little face and hat. Children sing songs encouraging the log to poop out gifts. Astonishingly enough, this practice is still done in some communities at Christmas time.
In Serbia, words are important in the Yule log tradition. Here, a priest often offers a liturgy when putting this piece of wood, called a badnjak, on the fire. You don’t have to go to the Balkans to see this time-honored tradition at work: apparently it’s spread to different parts of America, including Silicon Valley and Pittsburgh, PA.
Bulgarian tradition also honors the Yule log custom, where there’s a special process for chopping down a tree and getting the wood to the fire. Bulgaria is often filled the center of the log with wine and spices and may wrap it in a white cloth before its ceremonial addition to the fire.
In France, some families burn the Yule log every night for the 12 nights of Christmas, keeping the leftover remains locked up, almost like relics, for good luck – they say it’s to protect the log against lightning!
These long-practiced Christmas rituals show the enduring power of the idea of the yule log and Christmas fire, long after many of these societies moved from the fireplace to the modern HVAC system.