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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Christmas

Although the last Christmassy thing I mentioned was on 29th December and to do with our carol service in the 21st, actual Christmas stuff did happen on the 24th-25th as well, but I hadn’t downloaded the photos from my phone by that point, and then Life (with an admixture of lethargy) got in the way of blogging.

Even when I’m employed at Christmas, Christmas Eve is always a good day. As I unfailingly use up all my annual leave by about mid-December, I always have to work over the Christmas/New Year period; however, as all the sites shut down over that time I end up in our main office, usually in Archive, sometimes in Processing. Most of the field team are on holiday, as are most of the office lot, so it’s really quiet and relaxed, and because it’s Christmas Eve no one really wants to be there so we all go home early. Plus there’s always cake and chocolate.

The rest of the day and most of the evening was spent wrapping presents (yes, I’m disorganised) and lazing around reading until just before 11pm, when I went to Midnight Mass. Despite the fact that the word ‘Mass’ is more Roman Catholic than anything else, it seems that all churches use the phrase Midnight Mass to describe their late-evening service on the 24th, from ours (Methodist), through low-church CofE, to the Catholic churches. My church doesn’t always do a Midnight Mass, and to be honest I don’t always go to a Midnight Mass every year. However, both these events occurred in 2014, so I had a choice of venues. I could go to the Methodist one, or I could go to the one at what would be my parish church if I was Church of England. I ended up going to the CofE one, as I like the interior, I know people who go there, and I like going to different denominations’ services, but mostly because I was going to the Methodist service the next day and felt like a change.

Church view
The view from my seat. So many candles! And you can see their Advent wreath on the right-hand side between the arch and the lectern.

The service was as you’d expect – greeting, call to worship, a sermon and communion with some prayers and readings interspersed, and then just after midnight going round and saying ‘Merry Christmas’ to everyone else in the congregation. It’s always a slightly eerie experience, arriving in the dark at the end of the day, the church mostly lit by candlelight, and it’s a very quiet service overall – no hymns or music, and a smaller amount of people than usual. But it really makes it feel like Christmas; the sermon obviously talks about the changeover from Advent to the day we’ve been waiting for (from a religious and theological perspective), but the main realisation is actually saying Merry Christmas and hearing it said back to you, as well as having the middle candle of the Advent wreath lit for the first time as well.

Windowsill candles
Windowsill candles

And then there was Christmas Day itself. There were some presents, then breakfast, then church. The service tends to start slightly earlier than normal, so people have enough time to get back and finish making Christmas dinner happen, but it’s a lot more secular than the Midnight Mass. It’s a family service, so no Sunday School, and a lot of people bring in presents that they’ve already opened to show off. Not just the children either – after the greeting, call to worship, and first hymn, the minister asks ‘so, what did people get for Christmas?’, leading to about five minutes of kids showing off some of the things they got in their stockings, and everyone else showing off things like earrings, jumpers, and scarves, or naming things they couldn’t realistically bring with them – bicycles, kitchen mixers etc. I still remember Christmas of 2002 when I walked in with my new bow, having started archery that summer.

The high points, for me at least, were seeing the middle candle lit again, actually getting to sing the last verse of ‘Oh Come All Ye Faithful’, and the bit after the service where I get to see people that I quite often haven’t seen since the last Christmas Day. There are a load of us roughly the same age who came through Sunday School together and were part of our church’s MAYC (Methodist Association of Youth Clubs) group, and we’ve gone camping together and put on plays and all sorts. But a lot have moved away, or don’t come to church regularly any more (like me), so it’s great to be able to catch up.

Christmas decorations at the front of my church.
Christmas decorations at the front of my church.

The rest of the day was very relaxed, as it was just me and the parents this year, and there was a lot of food and cake.

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Our Advent wreath after the service, with some of the Harvest Festival fish-painting competition results on the wall. I still can’t quite believe I got 2nd prize for drawing a Darwinfish.

For those of you unfamiliar with Advent wreaths, each of the four candles around the edge is lit in turn on the four Sundays in Advent. So there’s one candle on the first Sunday, two the next, and so on. The middle candle, which is always white, is only lit on Christmas Day and symbolises Christ as the Light of the World. The other four candles can have different meanings or associations, but the usual ones are the prophets, John the Baptist, Mary, and God’s people, often paired with hope, love, joy, and peace. Our outer candles are red, but blue candles are also used, and among Catholics and Anglicans, especially the High Church crowd, three of the candles are purple and one is pink, used on the third Sunday.

Confusion over carols

As I mentioned before, my church had its Candlelit Carol service on the night of the Winter Solstice, as it was the last Sunday before Christmas. I’ve always enjoyed going, partly because of the candles, partly because we usually get a lot of good carols (i.e. ones that I like), partly because my birthday falls around then, and partly because it means Christmas happens soon.

It went well, although there were a couple of slip-ups on the part of our organist, who forgot to start playing for the last verse of one hymn, so you had the entire congregation going ‘Sss…’ as we started to sing the first word and realised there was no music, which always makes us smile.
The other oops moment, which prompted this post, was more… theologically interesting, at least from my point of view. One of the carols we sang was ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’, which has a different number of verses depending on the date. The last verse, which begins ‘Yea, Lord, we greet Thee, born this happy morning…’ is only sung on Christmas Day, for obvious reasons, and always has a note printed next to it in hymnbooks stating this. So when the organist slipped up and kept playing after the previous verse, there were quite a few looks exchanged among the congregation. Most people just carried on singing, but I was one of the few who didn’t.

Amused, I remarked to my parents afterwards (both definitely Methodist, one of whom sang the verse and one who didn’t) that I didn’t realise our church was going Pagan, and explained why singing that verse on the Solstice referred more to the Sun-God than the Son of God. It was only the next day that I began to wonder why I didn’t sing that verse. After all, I define myself as Christo-Pagan, I celebrate the eight Sabbats as well as the Church festivals, and a chance mistake like that should surely have had me belting out the words with gusto. So why didn’t I?

It’s taken a while, but after mulling it over I think I’ve worked out why. In my private devotions I don’t really separate Christianity and Paganism, there’s a mix of practices from both religions that I perform, a bit of Gnostic belief thrown in, as well as a couple of religious gestures I’ve borrowed from other faiths. But when I’m worshipping publicly, at a church service or in a circle with more than just me in it (which admittedly has only happened twice), I compartmentalise my physical actions, whatever I may be thinking or saying in my head. So I don’t sing for the re-birth of the Sun at a carol service, and when I went to stay with a friend for Litha I put the Orthodox icon I use when travelling on the altar we set up, but I kept the doors of the triptych closed.

The true, original, real meaning of ‘Christmas’

Or as close as makes no difference anyway.

Let’s say we find out an asteroid is going to hit the earth at some point over the next three months … How would humanity as a whole react? Well, I know how: we would prepare as best we could, and then we would surround ourselves with the people we love most and party our asses off. We would do it, because we would realize it might be our last chance. I know this, because we have Christmas.

I’m an inveterate Cracked reader, and I came across this article last night when I was supposed to be going to sleep, because Cracked is my procrastination drug of choice. I read it, and as a historian, archaeologist, re-enactor, and human being my brain just went ‘YES’. So I thought I’d share it with you.

The True Meaning of Christmas (That Everyone Forgets) – David Wong

Ignore the secular consumerism, ignore the birth of Jesus, ignore the co-opted pagan festivals that Christ’s-Mass replaced, I agree that this is why large portions of humanity get together to celebrate the fact that everything has died, it’s bloody cold, and we’ve still got about two months of crappy weather ahead of us which some people won’t survive.

On that longest night before the frozen mini-apocalypse, in all times and places you would find light and song and dancing and food … so, if you’re gathering with your family and friends this time of year, I personally don’t care what you call the holiday as long as you celebrate it with this in mind:

You don’t get many of these. Make them count.