The Yule Log: a pagan ritual turned YouTube phenomenon

The Yule Log: a pagan ritual turned YouTube phenomenon
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When the weather outside is frightful, a video of burning logs in a fireplace may not generate actual heat, but it sure makes a room feel delightful.

The yule log has its roots (and often simply was a root) in Norse mythology, and from there it was all up and up. It became a symbol of Christmas, morphed into a delicate holiday dessert, made TV history, and is currently racking up views by the hundreds of thousands as a sensory experience minus the pesky fire-starting.

Why does a big burning stick have such a hold over the holidays? What’s a yule, anyway? Today, yule find out (you had to see that one coming).

By the digits

1,068 m (3,503 ft): Length of the world’s longest yule cake, made by 80 pastry chefs in Shanghai in 2011

17 seconds: Length of the original footage of a burning log aired in 1966 on New York City TV—the flames skipped every time it looped

$4,000: Cost of a carpet at the New York City mayor’s residence, which reportedly had a hole burned through it by a spark from the loglit for the broadcast

3.6 million: Number of views on Lil BUB’s YouTube yule log video

£2.99: Price for 6 Cadbury Mini Yule Logs

A history with many branches

As with many traditions we now associate with Christmas, the yulelog is a great reminder that the season is a celebration of the time when the night is longest, just before the scales tip back in favor of daylight. Though the specific log-related tradition mutated (sometimes wildly) as it spread over thousands of miles and thousands of years, variations of the word “Yule” are a common thread.

For the most part, yule log rituals involve selecting, celebrating, burning, and then saving a piece of wood—sometimes an entire trunk, sometimes a log, sometimes just a small branch. It all ties back to celebrating health and wealth—among Celtic Brits and Gaelic Europeans, with whom the practice originated, people really put a lot of hope into one little log. European winters were harsh:Famine made keeping cattle too expensive, so many were slaughtered at the advent of winter. And a sudden supply of fresh meat meant a feast the likes of which they wouldn’t see for months.

In the 4th century, the Christian Church rolled the log into its campaign to create a holiday that celebrated the birth of Jesus, whose actual birthdate is still a topic for lively debate. Solstice rituals were already deeply ingrained, so Yuletide became Christmastide and the yule log went along with it.

What’s in a name?

Yule refers not to Christmas per se, but to a winter solstice festival celebrated over much of Europe long before the birth of Christ. The word is derived from the Old English “ġéol” which itself is derived from the Old Norse “jol.

Jolnir” was another name for the Norse god Odin, who represented all things wine-soaked and fun, but also death. If you’re a Norse god enthusiast—or just a Marvel fan—you know Odin to be the father of everyone’s favorite hammer-wielding god of thunder: Thor.

Maybe you can see where this is going: “Jol” turned into “jolif” in Old French, which became “joli” in Modern French. The French meaning morphed from “festive” to “pretty” or “nice,” but in English, “jolly” caught on as a common adjective for both Santa and Christmas—it does rhyme nicely with “holly,” after all.

How to tend a yule log

Burning a Christmas log is not all fun and games (and fire). According to Snopes, this custom was loaded with ritual, the particulars of which varied regionally. The log was often first anointed with wine or salt. Some communities insisted that yule logs couldn’t be tended during Christmas Eve dinner, and that hands had to be clean while handling it. The log also had to be lit using the leftovers from last year’s log, which (as one does) was stored under the bed all year to protect against house fires and lightning. You never bought a yule log—lucky ones had to be found locally. And, according to Snopes: “As the log burned, people told ghost stories and tales of olden times whilst drinking cider. Shadows cast upon the wall were carefully scrutinized, for it was well known that a ‘headless’ shadow foretold the death of the person casting it within the year.” Festive!

But can you eat it?

Leave it to the French to turn a tradition into an extremely tasty treat typically served after Christmas dinner. The bûche de Noël is a sponge cake filled with mousse or buttercream, rolled up into a log-like shape, frosted in a bark-like way, and decorated with marzipan or meringue mushrooms.

For our non-European readers, we encourage you to find one as soon as possible. If your local baker looks at you funny, try your hand at one yourself—it’s not as difficult as it looks.

The festive poop log

One off-shoot log tradition is the Catalan Tió de Nadal—the “poop log.” This hollow log has a happy face, a hat, and stick legs. It makes its entrance on December 8, and families “feed it” with nuts, dried fruit, and water. It’s also covered snugly with a blanket every night until Christmas Eve. Then, kids hit the log with sticks and demand it to poop out candy or presents. The log complies—a true Christmas miracle. Check out the process, including the traditional (and bizarre) song, in the video above.

The log’s TV debut

In 1966, New York’s local WPIX station was faced with an hour and a half of Christmas Eve dead air. The station’s president suggested a sort of Christmas card to viewers: a closeup of a burning log on a fireplace festooned with stockings, backed by holiday music, and played on a loop.

WPIX ended up canceling its other programming (much to the scheduled roller derby’s chagrin) and treating New Yorkers to a roaring, festive fire for three hours. The TV became the family hearth that night, and the response was enthusiastic. It was reshot in 1970, played annually until 1989, and then extinguished.

But never fear, DVDs (and eventually the internet) came through. There are over 100 videos on the YouTube channel Virtual Fireplacealone. As a seasonal gift to you, our reader, we picked the ones that burn the brightest.

Quartz’s Yule Log… Log

A Very Happy Yule Log: This Hallmark take from 2016 packs a lot of Christmas into one frame: Lights, stockings, gifts, a tree, a cat named Happy and a dog named Happy. This thing burns ferociously for three straight hours (it doesn’t loop—that’s three glorious real hours), with classic Christmas songs playing throughout. Highly recommended for bigger TVs.

The Yule Log: A no-frills approach to fireplace videos, the fire takes center stage and carries the show, even though it’s an unorthodox teepee fire. The real hero here is the soundtrack, just a crisp fire-y roar with plenty of crackle.

Fireplace in Your Home: Birchwood Edition: The whole series—an empire begun by a pilot-turned-fireplace-visionary named George Ford—is the gold standard of yule logs. The birchwood edition is Ford at his finest, and once it gets going (it does take a little while), you’ll feel its Christmas-y wrath. Oh, and it’s in 4K, for those who like their fake fireplace in the highest of resolutions.

Original WPIX Yule Log: Log for log, it doesn’t hold up to today’s standards. No roars or crackles, just music, and that’s a problem. But the OG is not on this list for its production value—all hail the originator. We wouldn’t be here without it.

Fireplace in Your Home: Classic Edition: If George Ford is the Orson Welles of yule logs, this is his Citizen Kane. Like its birchwood brother, the fire starts slow and builds over time, reaching a ferocious peak about 15 minutes in, blazing in perfect symmetry for 30 minutes, and then slowly fading into a perfect death. Netflix gave it its own trailer and behind the scenes video, and over on Amazon, it’s literally restoring people’s faith in Christmas.