Today is the Solstice. In our hemisphere it is the Winter Solstice and in the southern hemisphere it's the Summer Solstice.
Today the sun sets at 4:43PM and won't rise again until Tuesday morning at 8:03AM. This will be our longest night of the year.
The Winter Solstice marks an important transition for many cultures. I hope you enjoy learning about the Yule Log, one of my favorite winter solstice traditions.
Burning a yule log is one of the oldest European Christmas traditions. It even predates the first Christmas.
Log-burning rituals were central to Celtic, Norse, Greek, and Siberian winter solstice celebrations. Logs were burned to celebrate the end of the longest night, and to welcome the lengthening of the coming days.
Traditional yuletide celebrations involved the entire family venturing out into the woods to cut down an oak tree large enough to burn for 12 continuous days. The tree would be dragged home with much celebration and caroling. It was a community event, and neighbors would help drag the tree; sing along; and share ale, cider and mincemeat pies.
When the tree finally arrived at home, a piece of it was placed into the hearth and lit with a piece of wood preserved from the previous year’s yule log. This was to ensure that the family would have good fortune in the coming year and to keep the family connected throughout the years.
Once the yule log was lit, it was time for relaxing, merriment and a reprieve from the drudgery of daily life. As one log burned down, a new log was placed in the hearth. During the 12 days of burning, or yuletide, families and friends would call on each other, and communities would gather for feasts and festivities.
At the end of the 12th day, or once the solstice had passed, the ashes and any unburned wood were gathered. The wood was stored in a special place to be used to light the next year’s yule log. The ashes were worked into the soil to ensure the health of the crops. Preserving the wood and returning the ashes to the field connected people to nature and showed an appreciation for the trees.
This yuletide, you and your family can practice some “old-time religion” by burning your own yule log. However, it doesn’t need to be from an oak you cut down yourselves! You can use any piece of wood. In fact, ancient Europeans believed that different species of trees had specific powers or meanings. For example, ash was believed to bring protection and health; birch signified new beginnings; pine was supposed to bring prosperity; and traditional oak was thought to promote healing, strength and wisdom.
You can personalize your yule log by decorating it with evergreens or carving season’s greetings into it. Since may of us aren’t traveling this year for the winter holidays, it’s the perfect year to snuggle-in at home around the fireplace. Of course, you can create your own family yuletide tradition and burn your yule log on Christmas Eve, solstice night (Dec. 22), or any night that is meaningful for your family. If you don’t have a wood-burning fireplace, you can place candles into a log and simply burn the candles, or borrow the French tradition of baking a chocolate yule log or “Bûche de Noël.”
Of course, always use caution and never leave open flames unattended.
No matter how you choose to celebrate, have a happy yuletide!
This is a reprint of an article I wrote when I was the commercial horticulture program coordinator for the western area of University of Nevada Cooperative Extension.
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