Among the Pagan traditions that have become part of Christmas is burning the yule log. The Druids would bless a log and keep it burning for 12 days during the winter solstice; part of the log was kept for the following year when it would be used to light the new yule log.
For the Vikings, the yule log was an integral part of their celebration of the winter solstice, the julfest; on the log, they would carve runes representing unwanted situations, back luck or loss of honor they wanted the gods to take from them. As the log burned the negative qualities literally went up in smoke, gone with the log.
This practice flourished and spread. By medieval times the yule log was one of the most widespread Christmas traditions in early modern Europe, with the first recording of its appearance dating to 1184. The log was a huge block, lasting for the full twelve days of Christmas. Part of the log was always saved to light the following year’s yule log. Traditionally, during the year the saved section of the log is kept under the rafters of the house to ward off lightning and fire. In parts of Northern Spain and Southern France the log was believed to have the magical ability to produce gifts. Strangely, the log is said to produce the gifts by defecating them. The Yule log is recorded in the folklore archives of much of England, but particularly in collections covering the West Country and the North Country, even as late as just before WWI and there was still quite a ritual to it. But the twentieth century meant the end of fireplaces in most homes and those rituals faded.
In most places, should the fire go out it was considered a bad omen. It was to be lit with a section of the prior year’s log and to ensure it would last until New Year’s day, the fire was carefully banked each evening and stirred to life again each morning. Most fireplaces of the last two hundred years or so are too small to accommodate a log large enough to last this long, although in mt small fireplace I could get one to last three or four days. I have the piece of last year’s log but this year there will be no fire due to the deterioration of the fireplace, only a decorated log on which I will burn candles.