Most Inland Empire residents would probably confess to hardly remembering a holiday season when they did not sing along to Nat King Cole’s iconic rendition of the holiday classic, The Christmas Song, “Yuletide carols being sung by a choir, and folks dressed up like Eskimos. Everybody knows . . . ”
Of course, The Christmas Song is not the only holiday tune with a refrain about yuletide carols. Merged between the fa-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la’s in the seasonal hit, Deck the Halls, is a line that goes, “Troll the ancient yuletide carol . . .”
Although most of us have sung these songs our entire lives, some are not quite sure about the meaning of Yule, Yuletide or Yule logs or how the Yule log tradition burned a place in history of the deep South.
Yule or Yuletide (Yule time) was once a pagan holiday celebrated on the day of Winter solstice, a tradition began in Medieval Times. People in the northern hemisphere celebrated the Winter Solstice because it signaled the arrival of longer days and more daylight–they celebrated the light of the sun.
Historians say the Norse people considered it a time for “much feasting, merrymaking, and, some say, a time of sacrifice as well.
Almost everything Yule or Yuletide celebrations sound similar to how we celebrate Christmas today—with the exception of sacrifices, of course.
Historians also record that in pre-Christian Scandinavia, the Feast of Juul, or Yule, lasted for 12 days, the probable origin of the 12 days of Christmas. During Yule, the Scandinavians and others arts of Northern Europe celebrated the rebirth of the sun. This celebration also gave rise to the burning Yule logs.
Originally, according to records, Yule logs were actually an entire tree that was chosen, cut down and carried into the house with great fanfare during Yuletide. The largest end of the log would be put into the fireplace and the rest of the tree extended into the room. The log was lit from the remnants of the previous year’s Yule log that had been carefully stored. Once lit, the yule log would be slowly fed into the fire through the twelve days of Yule.
Interestingly, it was also important that when the Yule log was lit from the remnants of the previous year, that the lighting be done by someone with clean hands. To light a Yule log with dirty hands would have been an unforgiveable sign of disrespect.
The annual tradition of burning logs at Yuletide eventually spread across Europe where different kinds of wood was used in different countries. For example, in England, they traditionally use Oak; in Scotland, they prefer Birch; and in France, they use Cherry wood and sprinkle it with wine before burning to give it a nice fragrance when lit. These are just a few examples.
In the fourth century, the Catholic Pope decided to celebrate Christmas around the same time as the Winter Solstice and in the process, usurped the Pagan holiday. Although the Yule log tradition continued, the fire that once represented the light of the sun now represented the light of a savior instead.
Overtime, the Yule log tradition made its way across the ocean and settled in America, eventually finding its way to the deep South. This is where a Pagan tradition played a role in the holiday lives of some slaves.
This year, as we anchor the origins of Yuletide and Yule logs in history it would be remiss not to take note of the role yule logs played for some in American history.
During slavery in America, some slaveholders took the tradition of Yule log burning to a whole new level. Historians tell us how slaves often looked forward to the Christmas holiday as a time to rest from the grueling demands of their sordid existence.
While some slaves were allowed time off during the holiday, others were not. On some plantations, slaves were allowed to select a yule log. The log was then burned in the fireplace in the “big house.” Historians say as long as the log burned, the slaves were allowed to rest—sometimes the log would even burn in the New Year.
This holiday season as you sing along to some of the many holiday favorites, you now know just a little more about the meaning and history behind those mysterious holiday words and phrases like Yule, Yuletide and Yule logs.
The staff at The Voice hopes you, “Have yourself a merry little Christmas and make the “Yuletide” gay.