The Yule Log goes by a number of names in different parts of Britain. It is, or was, Yule Clog in Yorkshire, 'clog' being the usual dialect words for log there (Morris), or in Cornwall the Christmas Block, or Mock (Courtney. 1890). It was called Christmas Block in Herefordshire as well (Leather). Yule Mock, Mot, or Stock, were other Cornish names (A R Wright). Evidently the 'tronquet de Noel' of the Channel Islands (MacCulloch) is the same thing. BIRCH or ASH were the preferred trees to use ("as bare as the birch at Yule even" is a North country proverb describing someone in extreme poverty (Denham. 1846, Hazlitt. 1882). Further south, ash was the most popular. Christmas Eve is still called Ashen Faggot Night in parts of Somerset (Rogers), when divinations are made according to the bursting of the willow, hazel or green ash bands round the log as the fire grows. Welsh people, too, played some kind of divination game while the log was burning. They watched the shadows on the wall - those that appeared without heads belonged to persons who were to die within the year.
The log is the Cailleach Nollich, the Christmas old wife, in the Highlands (James. 1962), where it was given "the representation of some woman", who, as it were, "stood in" for the bringer of the log, life for life (Stewart). The Yule Log was "sacrificed to propitiate the angel of death, in the hope that he would refrain from visiting the house during the year ..." (Polson), for the vegetation spirit is associated with death and sacrifice as well as the renewal of the crops. In Cornwall the figure of a man was chalked on the log when it was brought in for kindling (Courtney. 1890), which must have been exactly what was meant by giving the cailleach "the representation of some woman". Perhaps this was the origin of the custom whereby each member of the family had to sit on the log in turn, sing a Christmas song, and drink to a merry Christmas and happy New Year (Sandys).
Apart from these deeper sentiments, the use of the log at this time of year always had a bearing on the future prosperity of the family, for this is the sun that is being brought into the house at the season of least daylight, and indeed the new year. Yule Log customs are connected with the new lighting of the house fire, transferred from Samhain (the Celtic new year at the first of November) to the winter solstice (Miles). That is why it is so important that the log is never allowed to burn itself out, for that would be the worst of omens (Gomme. 1883). And parts of the log were kept, perhaps indefinitely, in the house after the festivities were over. At Penistone, for instance, the ashes were collected in the morning and put in the cellar, to keep witches away, so it was said, and to bring luck to the house. They were kept for years, forming a great pile (Addy. 1895). The Somerset custom was to put it in the cow-stall, to bring good luck in rearing calves through the year, while still making sure that it would be used to light next year's log (Watson). So too in France, where the log was called the Calendreau, or Caligneau around Marseilles, and chalendal in Dau-phine (Grimm), the belief was that if the householder kept the charred remains under his bed, they would act as a talisman, preserving the house from fire and lightning for the whole year (Salle). The same belief turns up in the north-east of England. Jeffrey, writing of Whitby, reckoned the old ends of Yule logs were kept in the house indefinitely. Any small piece of the log would protect the house from burning, and if thrown on the fire, it would quieten a tempest- an important consideration for sailors' families. There is even a belief somewhere that keeping it under the bed will protect the family from getting chilblains! (Waring).
Sometimes one finds a piece of last year's log being saved to light up the new one at Christmas, while keeping the family from harm in the meantime (Gomme. 1883). That was the custom both in Wales (Trevelyan) and in Cornwall (Courtney. 1890), right into the twentieth century. It was put into the fireplace and burned, but the new log was placed on it before it was burnt through, so that "the old fire and the new burn together" (Trevelyan). The custom is also recorded in east Yorkshire (Nicholson). Herrick knew the custom, too:
With last year's brand
Light the new block, and
For good successe in his spending
On your psalteries play,
That sweet luck may
There was plenty of ritual about bringing in the log. It could only be done on Christmas Eve, and it was very unlucky to light it before then; it was equally unlucky to stir the fire during Christmas Eve supper (Denham). Getting the log nearly always involved a great deal of fuss and noise. Sometimes it was called Dun the carthorse, and it was supposed to get stuck in the mud. Drawing Dun out of the mud was a common Christmas pastime. Some of the party would try to pull Dun out, but they would need more help, and so it used to go on, until everyone was involved in the job before success was achieved (Sandys). It took the form of a regular tug-of-war in Stromness, Orkney, each year on Christmas Eve (until 1936) for a tree of some kind (after all, trees are scarce in Orkney). The point about this one was that it had to be taken from someone's garden, without the owner's knowledge or consent, and carried off into the middle of the town. Chains or ropes were attached to the tree, and so the contest began (Northenders versus Southenders) to drag it to a traditional goal somewhere (Marwick).
Often, the log was decorated with evergreens as it was brought home (Hole. 1976), and always it was dragged in with a lot of noise and merrymaking. Sometimes it was well-nigh a tree trunk, for it was supposed to last over the whole Christmas season, until, that is, Old Christmas Eve (5 January). There was even a rather comic reason for getting the biggest log available. On large farms in eighteenth century Norfolk, it was always the custom to make two qualities of cider. During the Christmas season and specifically during the time the Yule log was burning, the whole household, master and servants alike, drank the better quality cider. Obviously it was in the interest of the servants to make sure that the biggest and slowest burning log should be kept for Christmas, in order to make the good stuff last longer (Minchinton). So too with the Devonshire Ashen Faggot. A quart of cider was served each time a hoop round the faggot burst. Sometimes it was the job of a particular person, or member of the family, either to bring the log, or to light it, as in east Yorkshire, where it was the wheelwright's apprentice who brought it round, to be given a few coppers for his Christmas box (Nicholson). Or in Provence, where it was the duty of the grandfather to set the log, from a pear tree preferably there, while the youngest child of the family poured wine over it (Bayley). (see also ASHEN FAGGOT)
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