Before there was Christmas, there was Yule. But when that was, exactly, we are not quite sure as the pagan peoples have left no written records. It seems likely that there were celebrations to mark the turning of the year and the lengthening of days following midwinter, that there were rites to celebrate the ancestors and we can expect that animals would have been slaughtered in winter as feed became scarce, so there would almost surely have been some sorts of feasting.
|The Venerable Bede|
The Venerable Bede records in his De Temporum Rationis (c. 726) that in his day the Angles used the word ‘Guili’ for both December and January, adding,
“The months Giuli get their names from the turning round of the sun towards the increasing of the day, because one of them precedes and the other follows it.”
He also notes that the Angles celebrated on the eighth day before the Calends of January, which would be December 25th, and they called this feast Modranicht, or ‘Mother’s Night’, although he is unsure if this is the origin of Guili. There is etymological evidence that ties the word to Old English ġéol or ġéohol, which can be linked jól and thus huil meaning ‘wheel’ and have connotations of turning, (although some scholars dispute this). Jól (q.v. modern Danish, Swedish and Norwegian Jul - ‘Christmas’) became Yule over the years and came to be associated with the days of celebrations over the Christmas period – there was aerrageol and there was afterrageol which translate as Early Yule and Later Yule, and some link Yule to Nowel (as it appears in Chaucer – ‘Nowel crieth every lusty man’) and thus Noël.
|Bringing In the Yule Log|
By the early Middle Ages, Yule was established in the English language; in 1183, at Durham, tenants attended the Bishop over the festive period and this is recorded as Yolwayting (Yule Waiting), a practice also recorded in the Domesday of St Paul’s (1222). The twelve days after Christmas were a period of unbridled licence and protection for the Lord and his property was a sensible precaution – a register at York reports that a declaration called the Yoole-girthol was read at the pillory by the sheriffs after the Mass of St Thomas (December 21st),
“… that all manner of whores, thieves, dice-players, and all other unthrifty folk be wellcome to the towne, whether they come late or early, at the reverence of the high feaste of Yoole, till the twelve days be passed.”
This Youle-girthe is the Icelandic Jóla-grið – the Yule-Peace or sanctity, echoing the strong links between York and the Viking settlers in the North of England. By 1475, the word Yuletide was being used in English and, as was common practice, existing feasts and festivals were taken over and continued under another name by Christian missionaries.
|Bringing the Yule Log In|
The old tradition of winter bonfires, in memory of the dead, was subsumed in the Yule Log, a great log (also called a clog or a block) was burned in the hearth over the twelve days of Yule. In some areas, the Yule Log was chosen at Candlemas (February 2nd) and prepared throughout the year. The Yule Log was larger than the usual wooden branches burned in the household; it was often brought as a type of ‘tax’ to the Lord of the Manor. The English preferred oak or ash, the Scots used birch, in Provence fruitwood is favoured and the Serbs use green oak, olive or beech.
|The Yule Log Dragged Home|
The log is dragged to the house with singing and is sprinkled with beer or wine, sometimes a human figure is drawn on it in chalk, barefoot or squinting people should not be allowed into the house whilst the log is being lit, and maidens are not permitted to touch the log unless they have washed their hands first.
|Lighting the Yule Log|
A piece of the previous year’s Yule Log is kept back and is used to light the new log, either on Christmas Eve or Christmas morning, which should then be kept burning throughout the twelve days of Christmas. Bad luck will follow if the log is allowed to go out. A charred chunk of the Yule Log was kept in the house throughout the year, to bring luck and ward off fires and lightning. The ashes were spread on the fields to ensure fertility, were believed to help hens lay and cattle bear calves, and were used in folk medicine to cure toothache and chilblains.
|Modern Yule Log|
As the great, communal hearths of the old houses gave way to smaller, more decorative fireplaces during the Victorian times, Yule Logs fell from favour and are seldom seen today, although they are remembered in the small, chocolate, Swiss-roll style cakes that are sold at this time of the year (in France, they are called bûche de Noël).