It being the Christmas season and all, I thought I’d write about the Yule log, that lovely tradition brimming with family interaction and deep, spiritual reflection. Then I did some research and realized my perceptions of the whole Yule log thing were a little off…

According to some sources the tradition of the Yule Log stems from Nordic tradition where big, burly, bearded Vikings would celebrate Midwinter with feasting, drinking, and watching a fire burn. (This being long before the invention of television, a crackling fire was the closest thing they had to ESPN. Also, I’m just guessing on that big and burly part, but I’m pretty sure the bearded thing is a given.) Some say they carved the trunks with things they wanted to avoid (ill fortune, loss of honor, and the like) in hopes “the gods” would take them away as they burned. That wasn’t exactly the kind of spiritual meaning I was hoping to find, so I broadened my search and learned a bit more.

In other parts of Europe a tree was cut and dragged home while the party sang ‘merry songs’ before stuffing said tree into the fireplace trunk first, with the rest of the branches sticking out into the room. (Imagine getting up to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night and walking smack into a honking great tree in the middle of your living room.) Somehow they managed to burn the aforementioned tree without setting the rest of the house on fire. Some traditions had it that the log was supposed to burn for twelve days, the “twelve days of Christmas” we all know from the song. Others limited their log to a mere twelve hours (apparently they had smaller fireplaces). No work was to be done as long as the log burned, which explains why the largest available log was chosen.

From what I could gather, most Europeans included a Yule log in their celebrations, though each group managed to put their own spin on it. Bulgarians sent their eldest son out dressed in his best clothes to chop down the tree. Somehow I can’t imagine Bulgarian moms appreciated that tradition much when Junior came home with his church clothes all ripped and stained with sap, can you? Latvians dragged their log all around the house before burning it —hopefully outside rather than inside the family home. Italians created an entire “festival of the log” (Festa del Ceppo) which included a fun activity where children of the house would poke the burning log to set off a shower of sparks, something I can’t imagine modern, safety-conscious parents would go for. And almost everyone agreed that a piece of last year’s log should be used as kindling for the new one.

Then the French got hold of the idea and tweaked it in a rather glorious way. I stumbled across the official Web site of the French Government Tourist Office, which told me that in olden days families gathered round the hearth at Christmas as the children sang songs and grandparents told stories, all accompanied by the burning of  an enormous log. Finally! This was more the kind of celebration I had in mind. The log in question was to be blessed by the head of the family and lit by the youngest and oldest family members together. Once it had burned, the ashes were saved because they supposedly protected the home “from lightening and the devil” for the upcoming year. Why the ashes were proof against those two particular threats, I have no clue. So far, the French celebrations were pretty much par for the Yule log course.

But then along came the 19th century and with it more modern heating, which meant huge fireplaces were less common. So an enterprising Parisian historian and pastrymaker named Pierre Lecam decided to take a good idea and make it better…and by better, I mean chocolate. These days the French Yule log is no longer flammable but it is most definitely edible. It’s called “buche de noel” and consists of sponge cake and chocolate frosting rolled into a log shape and decorated to look like a tree branch, often decorated with meringue mushrooms. This version can still be found on many holiday tables, but I’d be surprised if many of them last twelve days. They’re available at many bakeries and recipes are easy to find if you want to try your hand at baking your own.