The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

Yule Log or Clog

Source: Brand's Popular Antiquities Of Great Britain

W. Carew Hazlitt, Faith and Folklore: A Dictionary of National Beliefs, Superstitions and Popular Customs, Past and Current, With Their Classical and Foreign Analogues, Described and Illustrated.

Forming A New Edition of "The Popular Antiquities of Great Britain" By Brand and Ellis, Largely Extended, Corrected, Brought Down To The Present Time, and Now First Alphabetically Arranged.

In Two Volumes

London: Reeves and Turner, 1905.

Vol. 2, p. 672

Clog is properly a piece of wood, fastened about the legs of beasts, to keep them from running astray. In a secondary or figurative sense, it signifies a load, let, or hindrance. thus also a truant-clog. Bailey supposes clog to come from log (which he derives from  the Saxon liЗan to lie, because of its weight, it lies, as it were, immoveable) the trunk of a tree, or stump of wood for fuel. Block has the same signification. In the Supplement to the "Gentleman’s Magazine" for 1790, the subsequent note upon the Yule-log occurs: "On the Yule-log see the ‘Cyclops’ of Euripides, Act i. sc. v. 10. ‘Archæologia,’ vol. vii. p. 360." Beckwith in the same miscellany for February, 1784, says: "That this rejoicing on Christmas Eve had its rise from the Juul and was exchanged for it, is evident from a custom practised in the Northern Counties, of putting a large clog of wood of the fire this evening, which is still called the Yule-clog."

Christmas, says Blount, was called the Feast of Lights in the Western or Latin Church, because they used many lights or candles at the feast; or rather, because Christ, the light of all lights, that true light, came into the world. Hence the Christmas candle, and what was, perhaps, only a succedaneum, the Yule-block or clog, before candles were in general use. Thus a large coal is often set apart at present in the North for the same purpose, i.e. to make a great light on Yule or Christmas Eve. Lights, indeed, seem to have been used upon all festive occasions. Thus our illuminations, fireworks, &c. on the news of victories.

In the ancient times to which we would trace up the origin of these almost obsolete customs, blocks, logs, or clogs of dried wood might be easily procured and provided against this festive season. At that time of day it must have been in the power but of few to command candles or torches for making their annual illumination. However this may be, I am pretty confident that the Yule-block will be found, in its first use to have been only a counterpart of the Midsummer fires, made within doors because of the cold weather at this winter solstice, an those in the hot season, at the summer one, are kindled in the open air.

Brand adds : "After a diligent and close study of Gebelin, the French Bryant, on this subject, one cannot fail, I think, of adopting this hypothesis, which is confirmed by great probability, and many cogent, if not infallible proofs."

The size of these logs of wood, which were, in fact, great trees, may be collected hence: "that, in the time of the civil wars of the last century, Captain Hosier (I suppose of the Berwick family) burnt the house of Mr. Barker, of Haghmond Abbey, near Shrewsbury, by setting fire to the Yule-log." In his "Hesperides," 1648, Herrick tells us how the Yule-log of the new Christmas was wont to be lighted "with last year’s brand."

Formerly, at Tibenham, in Norfolk, and doubtless elsewhere in the East of England, a piece of the Yule-log was reserved to light the log the following year. It was also customary, so long as the log continued to burn, to allow the farm servants to partake in common with their employers of the best cyder, which was tapped for the occasion, having lain a year or more in the wood to mature. Current Notes for August, 1856.

In Warmstrey’s "Vindication of the Solemnity of the Nativity of Christ," 1648, is the following passage: "The blazes are foolish and vaine," (he means here, evidently, the Yule-clogs or logs) "and not countenanced by the church."

"Now blocks to cleave
This time requires,
‘Gainst Christmas for
To make good fires."
            Poor Robin for 1677.

A clergyman of Devonshire informed Mr. Brand that the custom of burning the Christmas-block still continued in that county. This was in the 18th century, and I believe that the usage is still retained. Comp. Kitchen Fire. The habit of keeping the fire alight throughout the year may have had a superstitious origin. There is a Scotish proverb, "He’s as bare as the birk at Yule E’en," which perhaps, alludes to this custom, the birk meaning a block of the birch-tree, stripped of its hark and dried against Yule Even. It is spoken of one who is exceedingly poor.

Thiers states, that it was the practice in France to light the log on Christmas Eve, and to burn it for a certain time every day till Twelfth Night. He ascribes singular virtues to this log which in France used, he seems to say, to be carefully preserved in the house under a bed, or in some other secure place as a protection against thunder and fire during the rest of the year. It was also regarded as beneficial, when properly administered, in the cure of diseases in animals; it was dipped in the water-trough used for cows in calf, to expedite delivery, and its ashes, scattered over the land, kept the corn clear of blight. Traité des Superstitions, 1679, i, 323.

Note: See Herrick's Come Bring The Noise and Kindle The Christmas Brand.

Washington Irving, in the notes to Old Christmas observed:

The Yule-clog is a great log of wood, sometimes the root of a tree, brought into the house with great ceremony, on Christmas eve, laid in the fireplace, and lighted with the brand of last year's clog. While it lasted there was great drinking, singing, and telling of tales. Sometimes it was accompanied by Christmas candles, but in the cottages the only light was from the ruddy blaze of the great wood fire. The Yule-clog was to burn all night; if it went out, it was considered a sign of ill luck.

Herrick mentions it in one of his songs:--

    "Come, bring with a noise
    My merrie, merrie boyes,
The Christmas log to the firing:
    While my good dame, she
    Bids ye all be free,
And drink to your hearts' desiring."

[See: Come Bring The Noise]

The Yule-clog is still burnt in many farm-houses and kitchens in England, particularly in the north, and there are several superstitions connected with it among the peasantry. If a squinting person come to the house while it is burning, or a person bare-footed, it is considered an ill omen. The brand remaining from the Yule-clog is carefully put away to light the next year's Christmas fire.

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