In early December, the equivalent in Pagan households to “Where did we store the Christmas lights?” is “What did we do with the Yule log?” A piece of wood from last year’s Winter Solstice ritual fire is always saved to burn on the next year’s fire. This is a throwback to times when a perpetual fire was burned at the community shrine or temple, and it symbolizes the continuity of tradition.It is the fire and not the log that is the central theme of the Yule ceremony. The hearth fire is the manifestation of the ancestral spirits and the generating force of new human life. According to Clement A. Miles in Christmas Customs and Traditions: “Ancestral spirits, it seems, were once believed to be immanent in the fire that burned on the hearth, and had to be propitiated with libations, while elsewhere the souls of the dead were thought to return to their old homes at the New Year, and meat and drink had to be set out for them.” This sounds a lot like the holy day of Samhain that just passed on October 31st. Euro-Pagan religions which preceded Christianity are essentially systems of ancestor worship, so we would expect the ancestors to play a role in holy days throughout the year. Also keep in mind that Celtic and Germanic cultures absorbed much of the religion already practiced in the regions they settled, and thus there is duplication.In Neolithic European cultures, the hearth was the center of worship, so much so that many objects found in the vicinity of the hearth during excavations are assumed to have religious importance. Greek and Roman writings also identify the hearth as the focus of the family’s spiritual life, and indeed the Latin word for “hearth” is “focus.” Olivia Robertson, co-founder of The Fellowship of Isis, has written “The religion of the Goddess centres around the Hearth. Whether this be the inner sun flaming within the matrix of our earth, or the sun itself, this is the source of manifested life.”Although I frequently reference my symbol encylopedia, interestingly enough I had never until today looked up the entry for “hearth.” The description is short, so I will quote it in full:
An omphalos; the interior spiritual centre; the transference of the spirit by fire. The centre of the home; feminine domination; fire in its feminine-earth aspect, but the fire can also take on the masculine aspect with the earth as the feminine; warmth; provision of food. The Vedic round hearth is the earth, the realm of man, while the fire to the East is the realm of the gods. Among South American Indians the hearth-stone is named the ‘bear’, signifying subterranean powers and the point of communication with them. In Celtic countries the cult of the dead centred on the hearth.
I especially like the part about feminine domination.Oak is usually, but not always, the traditional wood for the Yule log. (In Provence the log would be from a fruit tree.) Oak is the tree of the Roman god Jupiter and the Lithuanian god Perkunas. Oak is the most sacred tree of the Druids, whose very name was derived from a word for oak. I believe the leafy-faced “Green Man” is actually an anthropomorphized oak tree. Miles (writing in 1912) says that “Among the Serbs and Croats on Christmas eve two or three young oaks are felled for every house, and, as twilight comes on, are brought in and laid on the fire.”The procession of bringing the Yule log from outdoors into the house used to be an important part of the ceremony. Sometimes the log was decorated with ribbons or vines before being taken inside. Once in the house, it was lit right away. Bread or grain along with wine or mead was thrown on the burning log. An orange might also be offered to the fire. In Croatia the metal part of the plow would be placed at the fire’s edge. In Tuscany the children were blindfolded and beat the log with tongs.Especially in places where wood was scarce, two tallow candles representing the goddess and god would be lit instead of a log. Bayberry candles at some point became popular, bayberry being a pleasant smelling and expensive wax.The remains of the candle or log were believed to have magical properties and were often saved. In Sweden the plow would be smeared with leftover tallow. The ashes could enhance fertility of the spring fields or protect from lightening. In Germany a piece of the charred wood was called a Christklotz “Christ Log,” and burned during stressful times to fend off bad weather or misfortune.In books describing Yule ceremonies, I do not find a mention of cleaning, smudging and purifying the hearth or campfire area beforehand, which I consider essential. Sometimes it is difficult, especially for urban dwellers, to get a suitable log of oak. Really any wood will do, and if you don’t have a fireplace a nice candle is a fine replacement. I usually do not decorate the new designated Yule log, although I think this year I will wrap it like a present. I like to burn juniper berries or use juniper oil. Balsam, citrus or wintergreen fragrance is also nice. These fragrances have a sweet yet purifying quality to them. A prayer to the ancestors and to the Goddess and her Divine Child should be made when the flame is lit. The offering can be bread, fruitcake, cookies, or any holiday delicacy. You don’t have to throw the offering into the flame (although there are some fruitcakes that could probably start a good fire). Sweet foods and relaxed, rather than ecstatic, merriment are an important part of this ritual. Don’t clean out the hearth for at least three days, and remember to save some ashes. If the fire burns so hot and so completely that you can’t salvage a piece of wood for next year, or you forget to save it, or the wood accidentally gets used on a different ritual fire, or you can’t find the old piece of log again when you need it (not that any of these things have ever happened to me), this is not something to get upset about. It is merely a sign that you are in some way breaking with your past tradition. There’s nothing really wrong with this, although at the darkest point of the year we usually take the greatest comfort from tradition. That is no doubt why this very pagan holiday became such an important part of Christianity. Sources Campanelli, Pauline. Wheel of the Year: Living the Magical Life. St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn, 1990.Cooper, J.C. An Illustrated Encyclopaedia Of Traditional Symbols. London: Thames and Hudson, 1978.Fellowship of Isis Central Site and News, Facebook Group, November 29, 2012.Gimbutas, Marija. The Language of the Goddess. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1989.Miles, Clement A. Christmas Customs and Traditions: Their History and Significance. 1917 Reprint. New York: Dover, 1976.Monaghan, Patricia. The Encyclopedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore. New York: Checkmark Books, 2008.