Today I girded my loins and braved the chaos of the pre-Christmas supermarket dash. As per tradition, I spent an inordinate amount of time deliberating over the most insignificant of details – which, at the time, feel like life-or-death decisions. Will I want my potatoes mashed or roasted? Do I want the cheap crackers or the expensive ones? Wensleydale or stilton? Trifle or Christmas pudding? Cream or custard? Chocolate log or mince pies?
Usually I end up throwing both into the trolley (hence the post-Christmas gym membership) and today was no different, so in went the chocolate log and in went the mince pies. But this time as I wound my way between the masses of shoppers and artfully stacked towers of Quality Street tins, I found myself thinking of the contents of my shopping trolley in a new light. On the one hand, chocolate logs and mince pies are mass-produced desserts purchased because the ‘true meaning’ of Christmas is to eat yourself into a sugar-induced coma. But on the other hand, these are items with long and interesting histories, that can tell us a lot about past customs and belief systems.
Today the ‘Yule log’ is a chocolate-sponge roulade, though historically, of course, it was an actual log. Ronald Hutton, in Stations of the Sun, traces its history back to the early 17th century, when it was first recorded in Britain by Robert Herrick, who referred to it as the ‘Christmas log’. In 1725 Henry Bourne described it as a Germanic pagan custom:
‘the Log has had the Name of the Yule-Log, from its being burnt as an Emblem of the returning Sun, and the Increase of its Light and Heat. This was probably the Reason of the custom among the Heathen Saxons…’
Whether its history can be traced back to Germanic paganism is unclear, but the Yule log certainly maintained some ritual significance throughout the 19th and into the 20th century. It was traditionally burnt on the hearth over Christmas (the significance of the hearth – as the centre of the home – is obvious), but as the original Yule ‘log’ would have been an entire tree, probably only one end of it was burnt and the rest was gradually fed into the fire over the period. In the image below, which is an illustration from Robert Chambers’ Book of Days (1864), we can see people dragging a large Yule log to their house:
And this image, from a c.1870 Christmas card, again shows the size of these ‘logs’ – and the amount of effort that went into getting them into the home.A lot of folklore surrounded the Yule log. It was, for example, considered apotropaic, said to keep evil forces away, and it was believed to be good luck if it stayed lit until the whole log had been burnt – and bad luck if its flame went out beforehand. Even its ashes were considered powerfully protective: in Derbyshire, they’d be piled in the cellar to keep witches away, while in some parts of Wales they were spread in the fields to deter evil and ensure a good crop.
As for mince pies, they may not boast as lengthy a history as the Christmas log but there are a plethora of ‘superstitions’ surrounding their consumption. It was, for example, considered unlucky to cut a mince pie because it would ‘cut your luck’, and it was particularly bad luck to eat one outside of the Twelve Days of Christmas. On the other hand, children were told to make a wish as they took their first bite of a mince pie. And it was believed to bring good luck if you could eat twelve mince pies provided by twelve friends, preferably at twelve different houses.
So to protect my house from evil and ensure good luck over the Christmas period, I need to keep a chocolate log in my house and eat twelve mince pies. Well, it’s better to be safe than sorry… And after all, ‘every little helps’!