“Come, bring with a noise,
My merry, merry boys,
The Christmas log to the firing;
While my good dame, she
Bids ye all be free,
And drink to your heart’s desiring.
With the last year’s brand
Light the new block, and
For good success in his spending,
On your Psaltries play,
That sweet luck may
Come while the log is tending.”
Robert Herrick 1591-1674
In the cold depths of winter nothing is heartening that a blazing fire ranging in the hearth. So important was the provision of this vital winter fuel that a whole custom arose around it – the bringing in the Yule log – a tradition with confusing origins as well. Today ask someone in the UK what a Yule log is and they will direct you to a cylindrical chocolate cake with or without a plastic Robin, but go back over 100 years ago and most people would have been familiar with it. An account from Belford in Northumberland summarises it well:
“the lord of the manor sends round to every house, on the afternoon of Christmas Eve, the Yule Logs—four or five large logs—to be burnt on Christmas Eve and Day. This old custom has always, I am told, been kept up here.”
The collection and bringing in was all part of the ritual of course. In Wootton Wawen, Warwickshire, the Yule block was drawn into the house by a horse on Christmas Eve. This is one of the earliest accounts in England when a Sarah Chandler remembered:
“Beginning with Christmas Eve in the year 1759 my third year, I perfectly remember on that day being carried by Thomas, an old man servant to my grandmothers…the object of my visit on that particular day was to see the Yule block drawn to the house by horse, as a foundation for the fire on Christmas Day and according to the superstition of those times for twelve days following, as the said Block was not to be entirely reduc’d to ashes till that time had passed by.”
John Udal (1922) in his work on Dorset Folklore noted:
“It was customary in many farmhouses on Christmas Eve for a large block of wood to be brought into the kitchen, and an immense fire having been made up, the farm labourers would come around and sit around it, or as many as were able would crowd into the chimney corner, and drink beer and cider. This was what was usually called the Christmas brown.”
Ella Mary Leather (1912) in The Folklore of Herefordshire records:
“lasted for twelve days, and no work was done. All houses were, and are now, decorated with sprigs of holly and ivy, which must not be brought in until Christmas Eve. A Yule log, as large as the open hearth could accommodate, was brought into the kitchen of each farmhouse, and smaller ones were used in the cottages. W—— P—— said he had seen a tree drawn into the kitchen at Kingstone Grange years ago by two cart horses; when it had been consumed a small portion was carefully kept to be used for lighting next year’s log. ’Mother always kept it very carefully; she said it was lucky, and kept the house from fire and from lightning.’ It seems to have been the general practice to light it on Christmas Eve.”
In the West Riding, while the log blazed cheerfully, the people quaffed their ale and chanted:
“Yule! Yule! a pack of new cards and a Christmas stool!”
In Shropshire, where it was called the brand or brund and could be oak, holly, yew or even crab tree and rollers and levers would be used to set it into the hearth of the fireplace. Evidence for the force needed to drag this weighty log could apparently be seen in the rutted floor stones of Vesson’s farm at Habberley in 1895.
Yule meet again
In Gutch’s 1912 County Folk-lore of East Riding of Yorkshire notes an interesting practice recorded at Filey where besides the Yule log a tall Yule candle was lit on the same evening or in some cases holes bored in it to produce flames, this was the case in 1900 in Herefordshire where the bron or brund was bored twice in the middle so that flames would come out earning the name Christmas Candle.
Keep the fires burning
County Folk-lore of Lincolnshire by Mrs. Gutch and Mabel Peacock (1908) describes at Clee, that:
“when Christmas Eve has come the Yule cake is duly cut and the Yule log lit, and I know of some even middle-class houses where the new log must always rest upon and be lighted by the old one, a small portion of which has been carefully stored away to preserve a continuity of light and heat.”
The log was lit on Christmas Eve and kept a blaze through the twelve days of Christmas and it was customarily said that as it burned the servants were always provided with ale. This would appear to be a survival of the tradition of having these days as holidays. Tony Deane and Tony Shaw (2003) in Folklore of Cornwall notes that it was also called the mock. They add that children were allowed to stay up late on Christmas Eve watching the flames and toasting with drinks the mock until recently, although they do not give further details.
Touch wood for luck
It was said that a fragment of the log is occasionally saved, and put under a bed, as noted by Gutch (1901) in her County Folklore of North Riding of Yorkshire, where at Whitby it remained till next Christmas, under the bed. It was said to secure the house from fire; a small piece of it thrown into a fire occurring at the house of a neighbour, will quell the raging flame. The embers were also carefully tended and were must not be thrown out “for fear of throwing them in Our Saviour’s face.” According to Charlotte Burne (1883) in Shropshire folklore they were:
“were raked up to it every night, and it was carefully tended that it might not go out during the whole season, during which time no light might either be struck, given, or borrowed.”
This tradition of the log’s power has been used to suggest a pre-Christian origin to the tradition. Dean and Shaw particularly note that in Cornwall it often had the image of a man carved upon it thought done to prevent witchcraft. Some have suggested this had to do with human sacrifice. However, there is no evidence for any use before the 1700s in Britain and no evidence before Christianity either.
Wooden be found today!
The custom’s decline is an interesting example of how socio-economic changes cause customs to decline. Clearly a victim of the Great War as accounts appear to disappear or rather not recorded subsequent. This is because of the changes that happened. The the large estates with their infinite staff became to decline, numbers of staff fell and the Manor house began to lose its position as the community focus. Furthermore as heating became more dependent on mains supply, many places did not need it and that combined with the disappearance of the horse as a work animal might have been the final nail. Yet interestingly, this is one of the few customs which translated across to the Americas and thrives there, probably because parts of the continent are so cold and snow bound they need they. A notable example can he read here but in the main they are either associated with boarding houses or hotels. Something ripe for a revival in Britain I feel!