What's a yule log?

A roaring fire in the hearth has long been associated with Christmas. But does it have its origins in the winter solstice? See more Christmas pictures.
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In a holiday season often defined by snowmen and sleigh rides, staying warm is important. Anyone who dreams of snow on Christmas morning knows that scarves, mittens and hot chocolate must never be far behind. And perhaps nothing symbolizes holiday coziness better than the yule log, the centerpiece of any fireside gathering. But what makes this hunk of wood so prized? Where else can you find one, besides your fireplace? And how did a New York television impresario bring the yule log into so many American homes?

The tradition of yule logs has its roots in pagan rituals. In fact, the word "yule" is old English for a festival known to take place in December and January. Northern Europeans, like Vikings, celebrated the Festival of Yule to honor the winter solstice by journeying into the woods in search of a hearty oak tree. The event was a family affair, with family members venturing out in search of a choice cut of wood. They would return with the most robust log they could find and burn it in deference to various gods as well as in celebration of life and prosperity.

Ultimately, the yule log was thought to determine a person's good or bad luck, and there are many variations on this superstition. One European belief held that the log had to catch fire on the first attempt to light it, lest all the inhabitants of the home where it burned suffer bad luck. Another stated that the remains of a log must be kept for the following year's ceremony for good luck, which would extend across successive generations. The ashes were sometimes stored under a bed in order to make a home immune to evil spirits and lightning strikes. English Christmas traditions called for the yule log to burn as a sign of goodwill through all 12 days of Christmas, during which time family members would refrain from labor to celebrate the season [source: Morton].

In the next section, we'll look at how the yule log is celebrated in modern times.­