Necessity is the mother of invention. This saying, believe it or not, quite accurately underlies the evolution of the Yule Log. You see, it was originally an actual log. Society changed, cities were built, dwellings changed and so did the traditional Yule Log. It was a practical change at first, and then a tasty variation.
The story of the Yule Log begins in 4th century Europe. Some say it is even older than this, dating to the Iron Age (beginning around 1200 BCE). The 4th century is when Christianity began to spread. This was a turning point for the Yule Log tradition. The next turning point, the one that placed the log on our plates as a sweet Holiday Season treat, is said to have occurred recently, in the 1800’s.
Early Europeans and Brits celebrated the winter solstice with a huge feast. The hearth was the gathering place year-round, but at this time it served a double purpose. Logs were decorated with pinecones and holly and anointed with wine, a practice that was believed to help cleanse the home from the year past in preparation for a new spring.
The largest possible logs were used for this as the celebration would last for days, and many gathered in homes who needed to be kept warm. Keeping the fire going with large logs was another way to symbolize the desire for cleansing and, in Scandinavian territory, it was a way to honor the Norse god Odin. The log was anointed with wine on his behalf. It was also believed that keeping the fire burning at this time would rid one’s space of bad spirits and invite good fortune. The ashes were saved and spread on fields in the spring to ensure healthy crops.
As the story of Christmas emerged, it became customary to bring in huge logs at this time of year to keep a fire going through all twelve days of Christmas. There are two versions of this tradition. One says that the biggest possible logs were placed in the hearth for an ongoing fire; the other claims that entire trees, trimmed down to the trunk, were brought in the house and gradually pushed into the hearth over several days. You can imagine the challenge of not sending the entire house up into flames!
By the nineteenth century, cities were expanding. The design and size of urban dwellings was much different from what country folks were used to. Also, coal replaced wood as the main source of heat. Thus, the hearth became much smaller. The Yule Log tradition continued in some households, but now the log was very small. It is at this time that a remarkable adaptation occurs. In some households, a small log was decorated, often with holly and candles, and placed on the table as a festive Holiday centerpiece.
People had been baking in the hearth all along, but the smaller hearth invited smaller scale baking. This, some maintain, was the impetus for devising a special treat that would honor the Solstice or Christian festivities (depending on one’s tradition). A log-shaped dessert aptly reflected the desire to honor feast and tradition. The French are said to have come up with this delicious idea. But this may be due mainly to the fact that they were first to publish formal recipes. The Yule Log, in its new cake incarnation, probably appeared in homes across Europe naturally.
And, if we are to hold on to the belief that French Chefs deserve credit, we must enter into a debate and this, as you know, can spoil a feast and family gathering in no time. Suffice it to say that at least two renowned nineteenth century French chefs may share the glory: Pierre Lacam and Marie-Antoine Carême. Look them up if you are curious. You will come across Yule Log recipes worthy of a sweet and decadent Holiday table. And there is no better way to honor a good tradition, whatever your beliefs.