Many Christmas holiday traditions have been adapted from ancient winter celebrations. Not long ago, I was watching a reality TV baking competition. The contestants were tasked with baking yule log cakes. It started me thinking about yule logs.
What is a yule log? For that matter, what is yule? Why is it associated with the winter holidays? Yule or “Jul” is an ancient Northern European and Scandinavian celebration of the winter solstice, the shortest day (or longest night) of the year. It is the official beginning of winter for us today.
Jul or Yule celebrated the rebirth of the sun and the return of nature. Part of this winter holiday included a ceremony that involved bringing a whole tree indoors, placing its trunk in the hearth, then lighting the base on fire. As it burned over a 12-day period, the trunk continued to be fed into the hearth.
The Yule log tradition eventually became part of European Christmas traditions, but instead of an entire tree, it was a large log burned for the 12 days of Christmas that start Dec. 25 (Christmas) and end on Jan. 6, which is the Feast of Epiphany for western Christians.
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Today, many households do not have large open hearths where they can burn an entire tree or even a large log. Maybe that is why the baking of a “yule log” cake has become a Christmas tradition in parts of Europe. It is made of rolled chocolate sponge cake layered with cream filling and decorated to look like a log. Yum!
As a “tree person,” I have always been intrigued with the tradition of the Christmas tree. Its origins can be traced back to the pagan winter festival of Saturnalia, honoring Saturnus, the god of agriculture. Trees were decorated as part of the festival.
In the Middle Ages, evergreen trees were decorated with apples as part of the Dec. 24 Adam and Eve Feast. In the early 1500s, undecorated evergreen trees were set up in homes in some areas of Germany to celebrate Christmas. That may be why Christmas lore credits Martin Luther as being the first to decorate a Christmas tree with candles in an attempt to recreate the shining of stars in the winter sky.
Historians dispute that Luther began the practice of decorating Christmas trees with lights and ornaments, citing that the first evidence of a decorated tree dates back to 1546, long after Luther’s death. These first decorations consisted of paper flowers, apples, nuts and candies. The Christmas tree tradition did not come to the U.S. until the early 1800s, when Germans migrated here and brought the tradition with them.
Whoever we want to credit with the origins of the decorated Christmas tree, it is amazing that this tradition still persists today. Last year, 26.3 million real Christmas trees were purchased in the U.S. along with 13.9 million artificial ones. Real or fake, trees lit with twinkling lights and decorated with pretty ornaments are certainly a great way to celebrate Christmas and the passing of the winter solstice.
Hurray, the days will be getting longer again! Next year’s gardening season is on the day.