It’s that time of year again.
When there is a very real sense of disappointment if the Postie passes without pushing some envelopes through the letter-box and when, better still, there is always the chance that there will be a parcel delivered to the house … assuming that there are still people around who can afford to send parcels! Yes, Christmas is coming, with its festive retail jollity, its annual boost to the greetings card industry and its annual need to send a card first-class mail to Charlie and Edna, whom we are sure haven’t sent us a card for years.
Although much less common now, when working open fires are seldom found in houses, Christmas cards do still occasionally feature a blazing, wood fire burning in a fireplace above which the mantel-piece is liberally decorated with cards … and copying or continuing this one-time common practice is regarded as less than entirely advisable nowadays. And the custom of burning at least one seriously large log at Christmas harps back many centuries into the past. Robert Chambers, the famous Edinburgh editor and publisher of the long-running annual Book of Days, notes in the 1832 edition that “two popular observances belonging to Christmas are more especially derived from the worship of our pagan ancestors … the hanging up of the mistletoe and the burning of the Yule log.” This Yule log was, according to the sixteenth century poet and clergyman Robert Herrick in the earliest known written account of the custom, a large log brought into the farmhouse by the agricultural labourers, who were given ale by the farmer’s wife as a reward. The Christmas log, or Yule log, was thought to guarantee prosperity for the farm in the coming year and protect it from the powers of darkness.
It seem probable that this custom, like many other associated with Christmas, was brought to the United Kingdom from northern Europe, most probably from Germany; and it may well be that the practice had no ceremonial significance originally but simply came from the fact that the best wood was probably burned during the coldest of the winter weather. Whatever the origin, the favourite wood for the Yule log was ash … so much in the news nowadays … for a variety of reasons. The first two are purely practical; ash is one of the first trees to succumb to frost and can appear dead by the end of November, making it a prime candidate to be felled and burned; and, as a hard wood, it takes a while to burn, meaning that the fire lasts well. Then there are the Druidic beliefs associated with the ash, which was thought to protect farm animals, particularly goats, from any and all illnesses; indeed, the leaves and bark of ash were used in herbal preparations to treat human sufferers from gout and rheumatism. The lopping of large branches to strip them of their smaller shoots, leaves and bark for animal fodder meant, too, that the larger logs were readily available for burning. And, since ash wood was used in making weapons such as lances, bows and arrows, ash trees were usually grown close to the homes of the landowners.
The continual reduction in the numbers of farm labourers in Britain which began with the Industrial Revolution and is still happening to this day, allied to a change in the relationship between farm labourers and their employers, was responsible for a decline in the observance of the Yule log tradition, a decline that was accelerated by the spread of central heating and the disappearance of old-fashioned hearths. Still, in recent years, chocolate versions of the Yule log have found favour at Christmas time; and I daresay that, although I have yet to see one, the day is not far off when some Christmas cards will feature the chocolate version, albeit not aflame!
Sandy Simpson, Polmont Horticultural Society