My take on the Yule log

The Yule log is a tradition in both the Christian and Pagan faiths, although these days the actual burning of the log seems to happen more in Pagan circles than Christian ones. As with most holiday traditions there are variations, often regional, but generally the log is brought into the house and lit at either Midwinter – the Solstice – or on Christmas Day, often having garlanded it with greenery and annointed it with seasonally appropreate liquor, then left to burn out. When selecting one’s log it was considered best to look for one that would burn for many days, ideally twelve, corresponding to the Twelve Days of Christmas, lasting from the 25th to the 6th of January, the Feast of the Epiphany, when the Magi visited the infant Christ. In today’s Pagan traditions the log is left to burn out to welcome and guide the newborn Sun, and in Heathenry it may be left to burn for the Twelve Days of Yule, lasting from the Solstice to the civil New Year on January 1st. For both Christians and Pagans is it considered good luck to save a piece of the log and/or some of the ashes to lght the next year’s log with.

Whatever may have been done with the Yule log historically, not everyone today lives somewhere with a fireplace, and even if you’re lucky enough to have a working one in your house they’re not always big enough to fit a lump of wood capable of burning for several days, especially considering modern fire safety guidelines. Ways around this are many and ingenious. They range from the chocolate Yule log with candles (which is not only delicious but also a popular secular version of the tradition), to decorated logs with holes bored for candles, mini Yule logs that can be burned on a table top, and artificial log-shaped candle holders.

Considering my flat doesn’t have a fireplace coupled with the fact that I like burning things, mini-logs were something I strongly considered doing, but as I also like the continuity of using part of the old log to light the new there was no way I’d be able to make that idea work in practice. The biggest log/twig length I’d be able to burn comfortably here would be about three inches, and if I kept a sliver of it for next year I’d only mislay it or forget to use it, no matter where I put it and how many notes I left for myself. So what am I doing instead? Using my Advent candle!

 

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My Advent candle earlier this month, next to a Christmassy smelling candle I’ve had for a couple of years and the Advent calendar I got given by a friend at church. My usual Advent calendar is reusable and a lot less religious, but still at the parents’.

I’ve used an Advent candle for the last two-three years, and until now I’ve just let the remainder burn out on Christmas Eve. This year however, I snuffed it once it had burned down past the 24, and I’m planning on putting it in the box with the rest of my religious candles and using it to light next year’s Advent candle on the 1st of December. That way I have the continuity of flame from one Yule to the next, I have something that can burn for several days during the winter festive season, I won’t lose it, and it’ll be safer to burn on my altar, considering the mess I managed to make on the Solstice this year with my charcoal disc…

 

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The stump of my Advent candle, all ready for next year.
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‘I may have just bought a pentacle’ and other updates

I may have just bought a pentacle with the birthday money my godparents gave me. Somewhat of an ironic statement I know, but still true.

The pentacle is often viewed as one of the quintissential tools used by witches and Pagans, especially Wiccans. It’s used to symbolise the element Earth, is one of the names for a suit in tarot decks, and occasionally appears along with the wand, cup, and blade on the Magician card in the tarot. Because my first exposure to the details of following and practicing a Pagan path were from the Wiccan perspective, when I began incorporating parts of Pagan ritual into my private devotions I started looking around for items to use as my chalice, athame, wand, and pentacle.

Even though I ended up finding suitable implements for the other three, I determined early on that I didn’t want an actual pentacle for my Earth tool. Because I wasn’t abandoning my Christian faith, the idea of owning a pentacle felt too unbalanced towards the Pagan side of things as it is a well-known symbol for Wicca and other neo-pagan faiths. I’d also wanted a finger labyrinth for ages, and as full-size labyrinths can be found marked out in stone and are made to be walked on I felt using a finger labyrinth for an altar pentacle fit nicely with Earth, as well as being found in both pagan antiquity and on the floors of churches and cathedrals.

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My baby Chartres labyrinth.

I was lucky enough on one of my trips to the shop attached to Southwark cathedral to find a resin-cast Chartres finger labyrinth for £20, as all the other finger labyrinths I’d found online were either well out of my budget, or would cost too much to ship to the UK. For the last couple of years my diminutive Chartres labyrinth has sat on my altar, but as it was usually covered with stuff I ended up using it mostly as decoration and hardly ever as a labyrinth, which began to bother me. And then one day I found myself browsing Paul Borda’s website Dryad Designs and saw his small version of the Tree Pentacle, which I fell in love with and ended up using as my WordPress profile picture. To start with, the small size appealed as most of my religious tools are around 10cm long, but the imagery appealed even more.

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And this is why I ultimately decided to purchase an alternative symbol of Earth for my altar – my labyrinth became a glorified religious trinket-holder.

Although the pentacle overlays the tree, both are equally visible and noticeable, and in my mind combine both Christian and Pagan aspects. While the pentacle is generally considered a pagan symbol these days, it has in the past been used as a Christian symbol, notably carried on his shield by  Sir Gawain, often representing the Five Wounds that Jesus recieved while on the cross. The tree ‘represents the cosmic world tree known throughout many cultures & spiritual paths’, probably most well-known of which is the Norse ash tree Yggdrasil. However, the Tree of Life also appears in the Bible in the books of Genesis and Revelation, and in mediaeval popular theology has a lovely link with the ”seed, root, stem, bud, flower, leaf, fruit’ representing the endless cycle of rebirth’ that adorns the edge of Mr. Borda’s plaque. As a mediaeval historian I’ve been exposed to a lot of the mediaeval church’s iconography and orthopraxy, and while I don’t necessarily subscribe to the theology, I love the stories, attitudes, beliefs and myths that came out of the first thousand-odd years of Christianity in Europe. One of my favourites is the story that grew up that the wood used for the cross in the Crucifixion was taken from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil that Adam and Eve ate the fruit of in Eden – thus causing the Fall of Man, leading to sin, suffering, and mankind’s presence on this mortal coil, that we will all eventually shuffle off of. So the tree that mediaeval Christians believed all humankind had been condemned to death for eventually provided wood that gave them the promise of new life and immortality. As the song Adam Lay Ibounden says – in an interesting reversal of the usual attitude – if the apple hadn’t been taken by Adam then Christians would have had no need of the redemption offered by the coming of Jesus, one of the few examples of the Fall being seen in a positive ‘if we hadn’t had to endure suffering as a result of Adam’s actions then we wouldn’t be able to rejoice as much as we do now’ way rather than the negative ‘humans screwed up so Jesus had to fix it’ attitude that is still a large part of Christian, especially Catholic, doctrine. Seed, bud, flower, fruit – if the fruit doesn’t ripen, fall from the tree and rot, the seeds don’t get released into the earth and can’t germinate into new life.

Considering what I’ve just written, one might ask why I didn’t just buy a Tree of Life plaque to use instead of my labyrinth, rather than buy one with a superimposed pentacle. After all, a Google image search for ‘tree of life plaque’ reveals some utterly gorgeous items, some of which I’d love to have hanging on my walls. Hovever, having spent eight years reading tarot cards I find the pentacle has slowly cemented itself in my mind as a symbol for the earthy suit in the deck, meaning I now see it as both an Earth symbol as well as a Pagan one, and I personally also view it as a symbol for the Web of Wyrd, with every part connected to every other. In addition, Paul Borda’s work, when cast in resin, has the feel and weight of stone but the look of wood as the grain from the original sculptures is still very visible. Stone and wood, mineral and organic, both products of the earth, and both used in prehistoric henges – stone for the dead and wood for the living. So partly symbolic reasons, partly aesthetic.

As for the other updates, I now have a permanent contract (for the first time in my career), have applied for a specialist role at work, hosted the first social event in my flat for my birthday, spent my actual birthday watching the sun rise at Avebury on the Solstice, and finally got around to setting up the bookshelves and my altar in my flat. I’ve also got plans to try and get myself to post here regularly and more often. Progress!