To the Celtic Druids this was a solar festival with the log being burnt after dinner. Oak logs symbolized life. Pine logs represented death. It was also the end to a dangerous time between Samhain (Halloween), or summer's end, and Yule. After the Viking invasion of Britain in 1100 AD, local Celts adopted Thor, the Viking god of thunder. He was now at the center of Yule Log celebrations. Strangely, Christian Teutonic Knights also adopted this by the early 4th century.
The Druids also called this time Midwinter or Fionn's Day. They decorated their logs with holly and pinecones. Then, after the burning, the ashes were given as medicine to cure plant rust, swollen glands and animal complaints. Celtic Britain and Gaelic Europe used a large tree or log to fit into their hearths. They anointed it with salt, holly, wine and evergreens. Then it was lit and young girls or a mother kept the remnants to light the next year's log. Some put it to one side of the hearth, burning it for days, even the whole year. The ashes were highly prized - apparent protection against evil and lightning. Birch, oak, willow and holly woods were most often used.
In 68 BC the Romans adopted Mithras, Persia's sun god, into their Saturnalia Festival. For the whole of the first of 10 nights they burnt a Yule-style log to usher in Mithras' strength. Even after the Roman invasion of Britain in 54 BC the influences of Mithrasism remained. In 1954 a Mithras temple was uncovered in the City of London.
The Saxons and Visigoths also celebrated the Winter Solstice Festival with fortune telling by the fire. Charred log remnants were kept because of their so-called magic powers. The log itself symbolized good against evil.
In about the 4th century AD the early Christians, who celebrated Christmas, then called the Feast of Lights, burnt a log to symbolize the end of the world's darkness and the rebirth of Christ as the light of the world. The adoption of the Yule log most likely came from the Romans.
To pagans the Nativity celebration symbolized the rebirth of Frey, Viking god of fertility. It was a time to reflect on love, family and past achievements. Logs were decorated with ribbons and processed home. Passerbies tipped their hats in a silent salute to the log. For some unknown reason barefoot women, squinters and flat-footed people were excluded from the burning.
Norman England celebrated the Boar's Head and Yule Log Festival. The ceremonial log burning symbolized the Christian vision of good versus evil and Christ's triumph over sin. The fire represented family warmth.
Even in Christian 12th century France and Italy the Yule Log (ceppo) survived. It was not until the 19th century that France and Quebec, then a French colony, replaced the log. Hearths were few and cast-iron stoves were popular. Soon the log was small and a table centerpiece decorated with candles and greenery.
In 1340 AD, after its foundation, Queens College, Oxford used the Norman festival along with song and literary readings. As a result the Yule Log became a traditional part of Christmas celebrations in English manor houses.
In 1888 AD Dr. Tibbits, an episcopal rector established the festival in colonial New York. Then, in 1940, Christ Church, Cincinnati adopted the festival for the church praising of Christ. Carols were sung as the log was brought into the church and a blessing was prayed for. Cornish English kept children up till midnight to drink to the Mock (Yule Log).
Nearby the Devonians used ashen faggot, a bundle of ash sticks bound together with bands of green Ash wood. Once at home the household's unmarried girls chose a band and the one that ignited first predicted that the girl would be the next to marry. Even today some country inns carry on the tradition.
Meanwhile, back in France, the Yule Log was replaced by the "buche de Noel" (Christmas Log), a log-shaped cake. It was served after midnight mass on Christmas Eve at a supper called Le Reveillon.
Modern times see the Yule Log as party fare. The real meaning has been lost. However there are modern Druids and pagans who still celebrate the Winter Solstice. Wiccans still adhere to the Roman traditions, following the old 4th century Justinian calendar. Ironically Caesar Justinian I adopted Christianity as the main religion of Rome, but years later converted back to paganism.
The Yule Log, though pagan in origin and adopted where needed by other religions, is thousands of years old. It is very likely to be a part of cultural and religious rituals for as long as society craves traditions.