What's a Yule Log?

bringing home the yule log
This 1872 drawing illustrates the Christmas Eve ceremony of bringing home the yule log. Culture Club/Getty Images

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 bad luck fall upon all the inhabitants of the home where it burned. 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 a great oak to be cut on Christmas Eve. And it had to be able to burn through all 12 days of Christmas, during which time family members would refrain from labor to celebrate the season. The family would collectively pull the log home with much celebration [source: Morton].

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


Fred Thrower's Yule Log and France's Buche de Noel

bûche de Noël
The bûche de Noël (or Yule log) is a Christmas dessert popular in France and other countries that consists of chocolate roll designed to look like a tree trunk. This one has a cranberry filling. Tracey Kusiewicz/Foodie Photography

While a proper yule log isn't a common sight in 21st-century fireplaces, it can be found in holiday kitchens — in the form of a dessert. Bûche de Nöel is of French origin and is a sponge cake replica of a yule log. It comes in flavors like chocolate and gingerbread and is frosted in a wood-grain pattern.

It's believed that the dessert was created in response to French families who didn't have a fireplace for a real yule log in their homes but wanted to share in the holiday tradition [source: Jaworski]. Yule log cakes are readily available in French bakeries, but many residents in the United States must make their own version of the delicacy from scratch.


But France isn't the only place that has adapted the concept of the yule log. Urban areas like New York City have high-density populations, and, as a result, space is at a minimum. Therefore, fireplaces are a rare commodity in apartments and condominiums. In 1966, New York City television programming director Fred Thrower had an idea for log-deprived New Yorkers. Thrower had his local station, WPIX-TV, broadcast a looping video of a blazing fireplace — with Christmas music playing in the background — beginning on Christmas Eve. The broadcast, designed to provide city-dwellers with holiday ambience they might otherwise lack, was an instant success and became a Christmas morning mainstay on the New York station. It began airing on national cable networks, and in high-definition, in 2004 [source: The Yule Log].

Today there are many cable and streaming channels around holiday time that show nothing but a video of a yule log in a roaring fire.


Lots More Information

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More Great Links

  • Jaworski, Stephanie. "Yule Log "Buche de Noel" Recipe." Joyofbaking.com. (11/15/07).http://www.joyofbaking.com/YuleLog.html.
  • Morton, Carol. "Christmas Tradition of the Yule Log." Master Gardeners, 2001. (11/15/07). http://www.emmitsburg.net/gardens/articles/adams/2001/yule_log.htm.
  • "Just What Exactly is the Yule Log?" TheYuleLog.com. (11/15/07). http://www.theyulelog.com/htmls/what.html.
  • "Yule Log." United Methodist Church. 5/4/07. (11/15/07). http://apmethodist.org/advent-trad.htm.
  • "Yule Log." Christmas-day.org. (11/15/07). http://www.christmas-day.org/yule-log.html.