Today is Christmas Eve, so I hope you have all your seasonal preparations under control, because the Yule Goat is watching you. Today is the day you should light your Yule Log, preferably using the remainder of last year’s Yule Log. No one is very sure where this tradition came from, it may have its roots in German paganism, but in Britain it dates from at least the seventeenth century. Back then, you would go out to the forest on Christmas Eve to select your Yule Log. Better make it a big one, because it needs to burn for the entire twelve days of Christmas. You would decorate it with ribbons and drag it back home. Anyone who helped to drag the enormous log over the rough ground could expect good fortune in the following year. Once you got it home you would need to bless it and pour some wine over it to make it feel welcome. Then you would put it in the fireplace, light it with a taper made from last year’s Yule Log and pray that it would burn for twelve days.
I have a log fire myself, and I’m not sure exactly how anyone would manage to start a fire with one enormous, wine-soaked log but they must have managed it somehow. As it burned away, it would also burn every bad or stupid thing that you had done during the year. So everyone could start the New Year with a clean slate. You might even heat a bowl of spiced wine over the burning log and drink it to drown all ancient feuds and animosities.
Like All-Hallows Eve, Christmas Eve seems to have had particular games associated with it. Once the log was properly ablaze, you might play a game of ‘Questions and Commands’. There is a commander, who may ask you any question and you must answer truthfully or obey and command instantly or risk a forfeit, which might be anything the commander can dream up. Although this game dates back to at least the eighteenth century, it sounds very like the game ‘Truth or Dare’. You might also play a game called ‘Snapdragon’. For this you need a shallow dish filled with brandy. Drop a few raisins in it, then set light to the brandy. Everyone takes it in turns to grab a raisin out of the fire. If you couldn’t afford brandy, you could play another similar game called Flap Dragon: Put a lit candle in a mug of beer and try to drink it without burning yourself.
Once the log was burned out, the pieces of it that were kept for the following Christmas would also protect the house from fire throughout the following year. The ashes, if spread in the garden or on the fields, would promote fertility in the following year.
It is likely that the burning of the Yule Log has it’s roots in some ancient ceremony where a fire was kept alight during the darkest days of winter as an emblem of the returning sun. In the eighth century, the Venerable Bede, who is our best source about life in Anglo Saxon Britain, wrote that Christmas Eve was once devoted to a pre-Christian celebration called ‘Modranacht’ which means ‘Mothers’ Night’. No one seems sure exactly what it was all about, but the ‘Mothers’ seem to be goddesses who were once very popular, particularly in Germany between the first and fifth century. There are many statues of them and they usually come in threes, with at least one of them having a basket of fruit in her lap. The central figure usually has her hair loose, so perhaps she is meant to be a young, unmarried woman, whilst the other two wear headdresses. Perhaps they represent the Triple Goddess, but as Christianity took hold, they became associated with the Virgin Mary and in a ceremony called ‘Midder Mary’ (Mother Mary), she was called on to protect all children in the house.