The first time I heard the term “Yule” was, I think, in third grade, and after all these years I still don’t know what exactly it is. I get that it refers to the time around Christmas, although I’m not sure why exactly that would need a more precise term other than “the time around Christmas”, or why Yule went on to star in The King And I and do commercials for Grape Nuts, but that’s another story.
The Oxford English Dictionary traces the word “Yule” back to about the 8th century and says it’s derived from Scottish and may have originally meant December or January, at a time when most people didn’t keep track of the months that closely. And the tradition of burning the Yule log may be Germanic in origin. No one really knows, which may explain my own confusion. The house I grew up in didn’t have a fireplace for most of the time I lived there–I thought Santa came in through the front door which was right next to where we put the Christmas tree, and no one I knew burned a Yule log. Even after my parents did put in a fireplace, which they did when they renovated the basement when I was about fifteen, we didn’t burn a Yule log–just regular fires if it was cold enough, and the thermostat was at the top of the steps leading to the basement, and since heat rises the thermostat would assume the whole house was warm and shut off the heat. This was fine for my parents who had their bedroom right above the basement but my room was at the top of the house and I’d freeze up there.
Anyway I still don’t know anyone who burns a Yule log, which is also sometimes called a “Yule-clog”, but I did find a description of it in Washington Irving’s story Christmas Eve, published in 1820 in the same collection as Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, but not as well known because no one loses their head in it. Irving’s been credited with bringing some Christmas traditions, including the modern Santa Claus, to the United States, but the Yule log is one that didn’t seem to catch on. Here’s part of Irving’s description:
The Yule-clog is a great log of wood, sometimes the root of a tree, brought into the house with great ceremony on Christmas Eve, laid in the fireplace, and lighted with the brand of last year’s clog. While it lasted there was great drinking, singing, and telling of tales. Sometimes it was accompanied by Christmas candles; but in the cottages the only light was from the ruddy blaze of the great wood fire. The Yule-clog was to burn all night; if it went out, it was considered a sign of ill luck.
That actually sounds like a pretty cool thing, aside from concerns that it might go out too soon, which could cause someone’s bedroom at the top of the house to freeze, and he also says there are other superstitions: “If a squinting person come to the house while it is burning, or a person barefooted, it is considered an ill omen.”
I generally don’t squint when entering anyone’s home and around Yule it’s too cold to go outside barefoot, but I really do like the tradition of saving part of last year’s Yule log and using it to light the next. It provides a nice continuity and a way to end one year with hope for the next.