Monday, December 5, 2016

Yule Log, the Dessert and the Tradition

Photo: A homemade Yule log (Bûche de Noël) made of chocolate filled with raspberry jam - the traditional French dessert for Christmas

Yule log is a traditional dessert served during the Christmas season. It is made from sponge cake and ingredients such as chocolate, butter cream, various extracts, and often shaped like a mini Yule log.

Historically Yule was originally celebrated by the Germanic peoples. In Nordic countries, and in some English speaking countries, words equivalent to Yule are used for Christmas. The customs such as Yule singing, Yule goat and Yule boar are linked to the pagan tradition of Yule.

The pagan Yule can be traced to several fourth century communities, even before they were converted to Christianity. They continued many of their original traditions even after conversion, though they underwent many changes in the course of time.

It is not clear if the historical Germanic Yule feast involved ancestor worship and the cult of the dead, as was prevalent in some pagan rituals. However, when the custom fell out, probably in the 1940s, it became just the dessert.

The English historian Henry Bourne (1694-1733) traced the origin of the Yule log to Anglo-Saxon paganism. He noted that the celebration involved burning a log of wood, known by names such as Yule Clog, Gule Block or Christmas Block. Its purpose was to illuminate the house and was symbolic of the return of the Sun and seeking longer duration of daylight.

The custom can also be traced to the folklore of England. According to lore, the Yule log is burned at night on the Christmas Eve. It should burn uninterrupted till only ash is left, because relighting it is considered unlucky. People sit around the fire and narrate stories of ghosts.

While setting fire to the log, people keep silence and make their wishes silently. After this, candles are lit from the fire and placed on a table following which silence can be broken. No other lights must be lit that night. Often a piece of the wood is saved to be lighted along with the next year's log. On the Christmas morning, a leaf or a tree branch is brought home before taking anything out of the house.

In France, where the custom is known as Bûche de Noël, the branch from a fruit bearing tree is circumambulated thrice around the house and blessed with wine, before burning. This custom seems to have been discontinued by a log-shaped cake, known as Bûche de Noël.

Yule log is also similar to Badnjak as in Slavic mythological rituals and other customs such as smearing the log with the blood of fowls or goats. The ash from the log is scattered in gardens and agricultural fields to promote fertility on the New Year's Eve.

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