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Christmas in Ritual and Tradition, by Clement A. Miles, [1912], at



The Log as Centre of the Domestic Christmas—Customs of the Southern Slavs—The Polaznik—Origin of the Yule Log—Probable Connection with Vegetation-cults or Ancestor-worship—The Souche de Noël in France—Italian and German Christmas Logs—English Customs—The Yule Candle in England and Scandinavia.

The peoples of Europe have various centres for their Christmas rejoicing. In Spain and Italy the crib is often the focus of the festival in the home as well as the church. In England—after the old tradition—, in rural France, and among the southern Slavs, the centre is the great log solemnly brought in and kindled on the hearth, while in Germany, one need hardly say, the light-laden tree is the supreme symbol of Christmas. The crib has already been treated in our First Part, the Yule log and the Christmas-tree will be considered in this chapter and the next.

The log placed on the fire on the Vigil of the Nativity no longer forms an important part of the English Christmas. Yet within the memory of many it was a very essential element in the celebration of the festival, not merely as giving out welcome warmth in the midwinter cold, but as possessing occult, magical properties. In some remote corners of England it probably lingers yet. We shall return to the traditional English Yule log after a study of some Continental customs of the same kind.

First, we may travel to a part of eastern Europe where the log ceremonies are found in their most elaborate form. Among the Serbs and Croats on Christmas Eve two or three young oaks are felled for every house, and, as twilight comes on, are brought in and laid on the fire. (Sometimes there is one for each male p. 252 member of the family, but one large log is the centre of the ritual.) The felling takes place in some districts before sunrise, corn being thrown upon the trees with the words, “Good morning, Christmas!” At Risano and other places in Lower Dalmatia the women and girls wind red silk and gold wire round the oak trunks, and adorn them with leaves and flowers. While they are being carried into the house lighted tapers are held on either side of the door. As the house-father crosses the threshold in the twilight with the first log, corn—or in some places wine—is thrown over him by one of the family. The log or badnjak is then placed on the fire. At Ragusa the house-father sprinkles corn and wine upon the badnjak, saying, as the flame shoots up, “Goodly be thy birth!” In the mountains above Risano he not only pours corn and wine but afterwards takes a bowl of corn, an orange, and a ploughshare, and places them on the upper end of the log in order that the corn may grow well and the beasts be healthy during the year. In Montenegro, instead of throwing corn, he more usually breaks a piece of unleavened bread, places it upon the log, and pours over it a libation of wine. 11-1

The first visit on Christmas Day is considered important—we may compare this with “first-footing” in the British Isles on January 1—and in order that the right sort of person may come, some one is specially chosen to be the so-called polaznik. No outsider but this polaznik may enter a house on Christmas Day, where the rites are strictly observed. He appears in the early morning, carries corn in his glove and shakes it out before the threshold with the words, “Christ is born,” whereupon some member of the household sprinkles him with corn in return, answering, “He is born indeed.” Afterwards the polaznik goes to the fire and makes sparks fly from the remains of the badnjak, at the same time uttering a wish for the good luck of the house-father and his household and farm. Money and sometimes an orange are then placed on the badnjak. It is not allowed to burn quite away; the last remains of the fire are extinguished and the embers are laid between the branches of young fruit-trees to promote their growth. 11-2

How shall we interpret these practices? Mannhardt regards the log as an embodiment of the vegetation-spirit, and its burning p. 253 as an efficacious symbol of sunshine, meant to secure the genial vitalizing influence of the sun during the coming year. 11-3 It is, however, possible to connect it with a different circle of ideas and to see in its burning the solemn annual rekindling of the sacred hearth-fire, the centre of the family life and the dwelling-place of the ancestors. Primitive peoples in many parts of the world are accustomed to associate fire with human generation, 11-4 and it is a general belief among Aryan and other peoples that ancestral spirits have their seat in the hearth. In Russia, for instance, “in the Nijegorod Government it is still forbidden to break up the smouldering faggots in a stove, because to do so might cause the ancestors to fall through into hell. And when a Russian family moves from one house to another, the fire is conveyed to the new one, where it is received with the words, ‘Welcome, grandfather, to the new home!’” 11-5

Sir Arthur Evans in three articles in Macmillan's Magazine for 1881 11-6 gave a minute account of the Christmas customs of the Serbian highlanders above Risano, who practise the log-rites with elaborate ceremonial, and explained them as connected in one way or other with ancestor-worship, though the people themselves attach a Christian meaning to many of them. He pointed to the following facts as showing that the Serbian Christmas is at bottom a feast of the dead:—(1) It is said on Christmas Eve, “To-night Earth is blended with Paradise” [Raj, the abode of the dead among the heathen Slavs]. (2) There is talk of unchristened folk beneath the threshold wailing “for a wax-light and offerings to be brought them; when that is done they lie still enough”—here there may be a modified survival of the idea that ancestral spirits dwell beneath the doorway. (3) The food must on no account be cleared away after the Christmas meal, but is left for three days, apparently for the house-spirits. (4) Blessings are invoked upon the “Absent Ones,” which seems to mean the departed, and (5) a toast is drunk and a bread-cake broken in memory of “the Patron Namegiver of all house-fathers,” ostensibly Christ but perhaps originally the founder of the family. Some of these customs resemble those we have noted on All Souls’ Eve and—in Scandinavia—on Christmas Eve; other parallels we shall meet p. 254 with later. Among the Slav races the old organization of the family under an elective house-elder and holding things in common has been faithfully preserved, and we might expect to find among the remote Serbian highlanders specially clear traces of the old religion of the hearth. One remarkable point noted by Sir Arthur Evans was that in the Crivoscian cottage where he stayed the fire-irons, the table, and the stools were removed to an obscure corner before the logs were brought in and the Christmas rites began—an indication apparently of the extreme antiquity of the celebration, as dating from a time when such implements were unknown. 11-7

If we take the view that ancestral spirits are the centre of the badnjak observances, we may regard the libations upon the fire as intended for their benefit. On the sun and vegetation hypothesis, however, the libations would be meant to secure, by homoeopathic magic, that sunshine should alternate with the rain necessary for the welfare of plants. 99 11-8 The fertilizing powers possessed by the sparks and ashes of the Christmas log appear frequently in folk-lore, and may be explained either by the connection of fire with human generation already noted, or, on the other theory, by the burning log being a sort of sacrament of sunshine. It is not perhaps necessary to exclude the idea of the log's connection with the vegetation-spirit even on the ancestral cult hypothesis, for the tree which furnished the fuel may have been regarded as the source of the life of the race. 11-9 The Serbian rites certainly suggest very strongly some sort of veneration for the log itself as well as for the fire that it feeds.

We may now return to western Europe. In France the Christmas log or souche de Noël is common in the less modernized places, particularly in the south. In Dauphiné it is called chalendal, p. 255 in Provence calignaou (from Kalendae, of course) or tréfoir, in Orne tréfouet. On Christmas Eve in Provence the whole family goes solemnly out to bring in the log. A carol meanwhile is sung praying for blessings on the house, that the women may bear children, the nanny-goats kids, and the ewes lambs, that corn and flour may abound, and the cask be full of wine. Then the youngest child in the family pours wine on the log in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. The log is then thrown upon the fire, and the charcoal is kept all the year and used as a remedy for various ills. 11-11

Another account is given in his Memoirs by Frédéric Mistral, the Provençal poet. On Christmas Eve everyone, he says, speaking of his boyhood, sallied forth to fetch the Yule log, which had to be cut from a fruit-tree:—

“Walking in line we bore it home, headed by the oldest at one end, and I, the last born, bringing up the rear. Three times we made the tour of the kitchen, then, arrived at the flagstones of the hearth, my father solemnly poured over the log a glass of wine, with the dedicatory words:

‘Joy, joy. May God shower joy upon us, my dear children. Christmas brings us all good things. God give us grace to see the New Year, and if we do not increase in numbers may we at all events not decrease.’

In chorus we responded:

‘Joy, joy, joy!’ and lifted the log on the fire dogs. Then as the first flame leapt up my father would cross himself, saying, ‘Burn the log, O fire,’ and with that we all sat down to the table.” 11-12

In some places the tréfoir or tison de Noël is burnt every evening during the Thirteen Nights. If put under the bed its charcoal protects the house all the year round from lightning; contact with it preserves people from chilblains and animals from various diseases; mixed with fodder it makes cows calve; its brands thrown into the soil keep the corn healthy. In Périgord the portion which has not been burnt is used to form part of a plough, and is believed to make the seed prosper; women also keep some fragments until Epiphany that their poultry may thrive. 11-13 In p. 256 Brittany the tison is a protection against lightning and its ashes are put in wells to keep the water good. 11-14

In northern Italy also the ceppo or log is (or was) known—the Piedmontese call it suc—and in Tuscany Christmas is called after it Festa di Ceppo. In the Val di Chiana on Christmas Eve the family gathers, a great log is set on the fire, the children are blindfolded and have to beat it with tongs, and an Ave Maria del Ceppo is sung. 11-15 Under the name in Lombardy of zocco, in Tuscany of ciocco, di Natale, the Yule log was in olden times common in Italian cities; the custom can there be traced back to the eleventh century. A little book probably printed in Milan at the end of the fifteenth century gives minute particulars of the ritual observed, and we learn that on Christmas Eve the father, or the head of the household, used to call all the family together and with great devotion, in the name of the Holy Trinity, take the log and place it on the fire. Juniper was put under it, and on the top money was placed, afterwards to be given to the servants. Wine in abundance was poured three times on the fire when the head of the house had drunk and given drink to all present. It was an old Italian custom to preserve the ashes of the zocco as a protection against hail. A modern superstition is to keep some splinters of the wood and burn them in the fires made for the benefit of silkworms; so burnt, they are supposed to keep ills away from the creatures. 11-16

In many parts of Germany Yule log customs can be traced. In Hesse and Westphalia, for instance, it was the custom on Christmas Eve or Day to lay a large block of wood on the fire and, as soon as it was charred a little, to take it off and preserve it. When a storm threatened, it was kindled again as a protection against lightning. It was called the Christbrand. 11-17 In Thuringia a Christklotz (Christ log) is put on the fire before people go to bed, so that it may burn all through the night. Its remains are kept to protect the house from fire and ill-luck. In parts of Thuringia and in Mecklenburg, Pomerania, East Prussia, Saxony, and Bohemia, the fire is kept up all night on Christmas or New Year's Eve, and the ashes are used to rid cattle of vermin and protect plants and fruit-trees from insects, while in the country between the Sieg p. 257 and Lahn the powdered ashes of an oaken log are strewn during the Thirteen Nights on the fields, to increase their fertility. 11-18 In Sweden, too, some form of Yule log was known, 11-19 and in Greece, as we have seen, the burning of a log is still supposed to be a protection against Kallikantzaroi.

As for the English customs, they can hardly be better introduced than in Herrick's words:—

“Come, bring, with a noise,
My merry, merry boys,
The Christmas Log to the firing:
While my good Dame she
Bids ye all be free,
And drink to your hearts’ desiring.
With the last year's Brand
Light the new Block, and
For good success in his spending,
On your psaltries play,
That sweet luck may
Come while the log is a-teending.” 100 11-20

We may note especially that the block must be kindled with last year's brand; here there is a distinct suggestion that the lighting of the log at Christmas is a shrunken remnant of the keeping up of a perpetual fire, the continuity being to some extent preserved by the use of a brand from last year's blaze.

Another tradition and its origin are thus described by Sir Laurence Gomme:—

“From there being an ever-burning fire, it has come to be that the fire must not be allowed to be extinguished on the last day of the old year, so that the old year's fire may last into the new year. In Lanarkshire it is considered unlucky to give out a light to any one on the morning of the new year, and therefore if the house-fire has been allowed to become extinguished recourse must be had to the embers of p. 258 the village pile [for on New Year's Eve a great public bonfire is made]. In some places the self-extinction of the yule-log at Christmas is portentous of evil.” 11-21

In the north of England in the days of tinder-boxes, if any one could not get a light it was useless to ask a neighbour for one, so frightfully unlucky was it to allow any light to leave the house between Christmas Eve and New Year's Day. 11-22 The idea of the unluckiness of giving out fire at the Kalends of January can be traced back to the eighth century when, as we saw in  VI, St. Boniface alluded to this superstition among the people or Rome.

In Shropshire the idea is extended even to ashes, which must not be thrown out of the house on Christmas Day, “for fear of throwing them in Our Saviour's face.” Perhaps such superstitions may originally have had to do with dread that the “luck” of the family, the household spirit, might be carried away with the gift of fire from the hearth. 11-23

When Miss Burne wrote in the eighties there were still many West Shropshire people who could remember seeing the “Christmas Brand” drawn by horses to the farmhouse door, and placed at the back of the wide open hearth, where the flame was made up in front of it. “The embers,” says one informant, “were raked up to it every night, and it was carefully tended that it might not go out during the whole season, during which time no light might either be struck, given, or borrowed.” At Cleobury Mortimer in the south-east of the county the silence of the curfew bell during “the Christmas” points to a time when fires might not be extinguished during that season. 11-24

The place of the Yule log in Devonshire is taken by the “ashen [sometimes “ashton”] faggot,” still burnt in many a farm on Christmas Eve. The sticks of ash are fastened together by ashen bands, and the traditional custom is for a quart of cider to be called for and served to the merrymaking company, as each band bursts in the flames. 11-25

In England the Yule log was often supplemented or replaced p. 259 by a great candle. At Ripon in the eighteenth century the chandlers sent their customers large candles on Christmas Eve, and the coopers, logs of wood. 11-26 Hampson, writing in 1841, says:—

“In some places candles are made of a particular kind, because the candle that is lighted on Christmas Day must be so large as to burn from the time of its ignition to the close of the day, otherwise it will portend evil to the family for the ensuing year. The poor were wont to present the rich with wax tapers, and yule candles are still in the north of Scotland given by merchants to their customers. At one time children at the village schools in Lancashire were required to bring each a mould candle before the parting or separation for the Christmas holidays.” 101 11-27

In the Scandinavian countries the Yule candle is, or was, very prominent indeed. In West Jutland (Denmark) two great tallow candles stood on the festive board. No one dared to touch or extinguish them, and if by any mischance one went out it was a portent of death. They stood for the husband and wife, and that one of the wedded pair whose candle burnt the longer would outlive the other. 11-28

In Norway also two lights were placed on the table. 11-29 All over the Scandinavian lands the Yule candle had to burn throughout the night; it was not to be extinguished till the sun rose or—as was said elsewhere—till the beginning of service on Christmas Day. Sometimes the putting-out had to be done by the oldest member of the family or the father of the household. In Norway the candle was lighted every evening until New Year's Day. While it foreshadowed death if it went out, so long as it duly burned it shed a blessing with its light, and, in order to secure abundance of good things, money, clothes, food, and drink were spread out that its rays might fall upon them. The remains of the candle were used in various ways to benefit man and beast. Sometimes a cross was branded with them upon the animals on Christmas morning; in Sweden the plough was smeared with p. 260 the tallow, when used for the first time in spring. Or again the tallow was given to the fowls; and, lastly, in Denmark the ends were preserved and burnt in thundery weather to protect the house from lightning. 11-30 There is an analogy here with the use of the Christmas log, and also of the candles of the Purification (see  XVI).

p. 261 p. 262 p. 263 

Next: Chapter XI. The Christmas-Tree, Decorations, and Gifts