The easiest & best winter celebration tradition
My ancestral roots in harsh Northern European winters run deep, that coupled with the years I spent living there have given me a deep respect for the Yule Log tradition. It has grown to be my favorite tradition. When the longest night of The Big Dark (that’s what we call most of the winter in the Pacific Northwest) hits, there is nothing better than snuggling up next to the fire, drinking Wassail, and watching the Yule Log burn, remember the day that the items for it were gathered and the display created. I also must add that the years I stuck to this tradition on the Solstice, the following calendar year was one of great abundance and growth. This has cemented my commitment to doing a Yule Log each year. In addition to the positive magic it creates, I love how festive it makes things and you can do it so on the cheap! Natural and inexpensive? I’m here for that!
The Why of the Yule Log
In ancient times, heck even before electric light was prominent in most homes, winters were super harsh. The cold, the dark, it was oppressive. Think how awful it feels in modern life some days. Now take away all our modern comforts of indoor heating, plumbing, water, and central heating. And there was nothing like Netflix or The Internet. Winter sucked. Finding food was awful. People starved to death every winter. Having plenty of firewood, food, grain, and even company was important. Our ancestors knew the importance of surviving the winter depended mightily on the ability to keep the fires of warmth and food making going.
In the Norse tradition, for which I am aligned with most closely, Odin was the god of not only mead-soaked revelry that you would find with the Solstice — the turning point away from the darkest times of the year; but, also the god of death. Jolnir was another name for Odin. The Solstice was often done to call upon favor of the All Father to bless the village — since no one did anything with just their little tiny nuclear family, but the whole damn town — with it would take to survive winter: warmth, food, strength, and shelter. Jolnir’s blessing or the celebration of Jolnir on the Solstice morphed over the eons to Jul. The Jul Log or now in English, the Yule Log developed into a symbol of the gifts of the gods and the Earth to help us survive.
The Yule Log tradition isn’t just if you’re European. It did make it’s way to America. There is a series of paintings by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris of the Mount Vernon Yule Log event(s). You know Mount Vernon like the ancestral home of our first president, George Washington? Not to be confused with the Tulip-crazy town in Western Washington. It’s been here in North America since Europeans first came to these shores.
The How of the Yule Log
There are many different practices of how a Yule Log tradition is done — some with many secrets and downright formality to it. For instance, you will not find me keeping the ashes of my burned Yule Log under my bed for the rest of the year in order to keep witches and evil away. No, the ashes from my Yule Log traditionally get put in my compost. Excellent ingredients to make better harvest the following year. Besides, my Ancestors were not really a formal bunch ever, even with western society got ahold of them. So my tradition, which I’ll detail here, is way more casual, and honestly, I believe, approachable for anyone to add into their own Bring-on-the-Light Celebrations of the start of Winter.
My Yule Log tradition always starts with a journey of gathering. In the fall when mushrooming season is high, I normally find a log that will work for my formal Yule Log. The Log normally seems to call to me. You’ll know which will work for you. Just make sure it will fit in your fireplace, wood stove, or fire pit. After gathering it, I let it sit by the hearth to dry out and remind me that closer to the solstice I’ll need to decorate it and honor it with other symbols of a festive and easy winter. You can’t have the light without the dark — our ancestors understood that and our high-powered lives of the 21st century would do well to understand that. It’s easy to forget the duality of life in this modern age. The Yule Log helps us remember, allows us to feel gratitude for the blessed times we live in.
About a week before the Solstice, there’s another gathering session — this time to procure things like holly, evergreen branches, snow berries, pine cones, whatever natural item you can find to bring some winter wow-ness to your Yule Log. I normally save one white, one red, and one green candle for the Yule Log. Some years they have been tapers, other years tea lights, one time we had a huge outdoor celebration and our Yule Log was a giant log so that year we had pillar candles on it. Next, I’ll swipe some cinnamon sticks and Star Anise from the larder to help decorate, too. In years past I’ve only sprinkled ground spices on it. The French are famous for soaking their logs in wine so that it smells yummy while it burns. You decide what speaks to you.
I have a tray that I put the log on and a red cloth to “tuck in” the log. I take what I’ve gathered from outside, and put it on and around the log. Sometimes I drill holes to put the candles in. Sometimes I just melt the wax of the bottom of the candle and stick it to the log. It just depends on how creative I’m feeling.
The When of the Yule Log
On the night of the Solstice (this year it’s Monday, Dec. 21, 2020 — but feel free to celebrate the day before or after), we light the candles on the Yule Log. Because there’s typically evergreen boughs that are now very dry, I will always be in the presence of the lit Yule Log. By the light of the candle we have a festive menu supper accompanied by the warmth of a pot of Wassail. We build a fire in the fire place (or when we’ve had outdoor celebrations, a bonfire) and ruminate on our most recent year and retell the stories that made this year — man will there be many stories about this year! During the telling of the stories, we think about all the things we’d like to leave behind and those things we’d like to hold onto from the year, and we write these things down on small notes. When the candles have come to the end or the evening is coming to a close (whichever comes first), we blow out the candles, remove them from the log, and then toss the yule log — decorations and all (and that is why using natural things to decorate the Yule Log is best) — onto the fire. We toss our notes on top of the log and pause a minute in silent reflection and watch as the flames burn away the past and fire-up the future. We wish ourselves the strength and resources to get through another winter and see the light of Spring as easily as possible.
Another Year Another Yule Log
See? Nothing too elaborate or difficult. Just takes a bit of planning and setting aside time to actually enjoy the fruits of your labor. And given 2020s challenges, I am so needing the magic of the Yule Log this year. From writing this post, to actually gathering the log, decorating it, and preparing to do the traditional ritual of it, I’m flooded with the gratitude, joy, and peace of the Yuletide Season. I wish you the same.
If you decide to do a Yule Log, please take a picture and post it here, or tag me on your IG, etc. I love seeing how different everyone’s Yule Log center piece turns out each year. A Bright Solstice to you and a Blessed Yuletide Season.