Friday, December 24, 2010

Yule Logs and Yule Tidings

There is something primordially attractive about observances, rituals, and holidays that celebrate the rhythms of nature. Today, 24 December, marks the Eve of the Yule, first celebrated by the Germanic people as a pagan religious festival to encourage the "rebirth" of the sun and the welcoming of winter. Though the actual date of the Yule varied from late December to early January according to the lunar Germanic calendar, its affixing to 25 December came to us from the Romans (and Julius Caesar in particular) with the adoption of the Julian calendar.

Customs such as the Yule log, caroling, the Yule sacrifice (usually of a boar or goat), and decoration with greens (hollies and evergreens) ensured, along with copious amounts of alcohol (to warm the soul and the body, I presume), a spirited observance!

The Yule log in particular has fascinated me. So much symbolism wrapped up in this iconic thing that, save for social meanings attached to it, is nothing but, well, a piece of wood. Tradition has it that no one worked as long as the Yule log burned--and some burned for many days! (Apparently, families would choose a green wood or soak a large log in water to ensure a long fire...ah, proletariat mischief!)

In any case, the type of wood selected as "the Yule log" signified different things. One burned oak to bring strength, wisdom, and healing into one's household, while aspen was thought to encourage spiritual growth. Burning pine signified prosperity, birch engendered fertility and offspring, and ash invoked protection.

The log, though, was never allowed to completely burn through. Families would save the unburnt piece to use to start a new Yule fire next year as a sort of symbolic gesture of continuity of the flame, of hope, and of eternal lightness.

With technological advances, our sources of interior heat switched away from burning of wood to gas, oil, and electricity--and with that switch has come the decline of the fireplace and its absence in many a modern home.

But the Yule survives in many forms: the Bouche d'Noel as a fabled dessert (which Viet's exceptionally culinary-gifted sister, Van, made once year), which proves to be a most spectacular, bedazzling, and festive treat);

the table centerpiece;

and, for the ultra moderns, in most curious form.

New Yorkers--ever mischievous, ever resourceful--have revived the burning of the Yule log but in most nontraditional form: electronic! This year, the Yule log will appear in 3-D for those with such technological capacities.

No matter how your Yule log burns--literally or metaphorically--I wish all merry Yule tidings!

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