Today, let’s have a little experiment:
I would like you to use your imagination.
You won’t find many pictures in this article,
I’m letting your mind create its own images!
Picture this: you are now comfortably seating on a soft chair, a cup of hot chocolate in your hands, and a pair of fluffy slippers at your feet. The skin of your face feels warm: there is a fireplace next to you, animated by some vivid flames and the cracks of burning logs. Lulled by what seems to be a song made of fire, an old man is peacefully sleeping on his armchair, in front of you.
You look around you, you are now in the living room of an old thatched cottage. The ceiling is held by large pieces of wood almost as long as the room itself. The floor, which once used to be made of white tiles, survived to the passage of time, almost turning its color to a pale yellow. Around you, an old wooden table, and a sideboard, probably as old as the table, decorated with some porcelain figurines.
On the wall, a clock indicating 9:35 PM, some paintings, and a tapestry representing a fox hunting scene in the woods. The horses made of textile seem to look at the small window next to them, from where you watch a night troubled by the snowstorm raging on outside.
Suddenly, the old man makes a sound and opens his eyes.
He looks at you and grumbles, with a voice halfway between surprise and tiredness:
“Oh, you still here? It’s time for you to sleep!”
“I’m not tired yet! I’ll go to bed only after you tell me a story!”
“Not tonight, kid, Grandpa’s sleeping.”
“OK, OK, one story… But you promise you to go to bed after that, alright?”
“Listen carefully… Soon, it’s gonna be Christmas, everyone will be eating Yule log cakes, right? But do you know where it comes from? Have you ever heard about Heimdallr? The Yule log cake’s name has to do with him.”
“Well, listen to Grandpa’s story…”
“Once upon a time was Heimdallr. He was a god, living in a universe called Yggdrasill, the World-Tree. Yggdrasill was connecting nine worlds together, and the Earth, called Midgard, was only one of these nine, the human world. Heimdallr was living in the god world, called Asgard. There was a special connection between Asgard and Midgard. It took the shape of a rainbow bridge, connecting these two worlds like a road. Heimdallr was the guardian of Asgard: he lived next to the bridge and was in charge of warning the Asgardians in case of an invasion coming from one of the other worlds. For that mission, he had a very powerful horn, and his eyes were able to see until the very ends of the universe.
“Has Heimdallr ever come to Midgard?”
“Yes, he has, several times! He even had three wives here, with whom he had three kids, Thrall, Karl and Jarl, who lived many centuries ago. And now, the legend says that every year, when the day is at its shortest, he takes the bridge and comes back to Midgard, to pay a visit to his descendants. He comes to each house, rewarding the ones who did the right things during the year, by dropping a small present in one of their socks, and punishing the ones who did the wrong things by filling their socks with ashes. That special day, celebrated by both Asgardians and Humans, is called Yule.”
“Oooh, so Yule is simply the name given to Winter solstice?”
“But… Why “Yule log”, then? What does it have to do with a log?”
“Don’t be impatient, kid. Grandpa’s about to tell you another story…”
“Long time ago lived the Celts. They were a civilization who settled down all over Europe thousands of years ago, and much that once was theirs, is lost. Therefore, we still don’t know a lot about their cultures or their lifestyles.”
“What about them?”
“Don’t be impatient, kid!… The Celts, like many other civilizations, were carefully watching the rhythm of the seasons. The Winter solstice, that day from which the days start to get longer, was a very important moment of the year for them. It was a symbol of the return of the Sun after a long Winter, the symbol of a new year. And each year, on that day, they would beg their gods for a good harvest for the year to come. Each family would go to the woods and bring back a tree trunk to their house. Every day during twelve days, they would cut a piece of this log and burn it as an offering for their gods. But caution, it couldn’t be any tree! It had to be a plum tree, a cherry tree or an olive tree, because the myths say these kinds have magical powers.”
“I don’t believe in magic.”
“Oh, well, you should, kid. Christianity doesn’t believe in magic either, yet even after it spread all over Europe, the ancient traditions stayed. During the Middle Ages, after Christians had changed Yule into Christmas, they would still bless the log with a sprig of laurel, drop some wine on it to ensure good grape harvest, or throw some salt at it to keep witches away. And even after the log was burned to ashes, people would keep the firebrand, and spread the ashes to their gardens, to protect the house from the Devil. In their labs, Alchemists would also prepare medicine out of the wood charcoal. Why do you think they would do all of this if magic did not exist?”
“… Hmmm… Anyway, you explained Yule, you explained log, but I still don’t know how it became a cake!”
“You’re being impatient again, kid. Grandpa was just about to tell you another story…”
“This story does not involve any magic. It takes place in the 19th century, during what we call the Victorian era. At that time, Oscar Wilde was writing his ‘Picture of Dorian Gray’, the Second Industrial Revolution was starting to boom, the population was growing fast, Charles Darwin had created a huge debate amongst Christians with his book ‘On the Origin of Species’, and railroads were slowly making the world a smaller place.
All my stories are connected with each other, kid. Centuries after the ancient traditions of cutting a log to burn it during the twelve days of Christmas were created, they were still present in the 19th century’s Paris.
Obviously, to survive that long, traditions have to adapt. People were no longer living in villages close to the woods, but in the city’s high buildings instead. They could no longer lift a tree trunk to their 3rd floor apartment, and it could no longer contain a fireplace big enough to burn such a large log anyway. Yet, they felt a need for connection to the old traditions, so one day, around 1834, a Parisian pastry chef came up with the idea of log-shaped cake. It became tremendously popular, and the recipe quickly spread in French-speaking countries: Belgium, Switzerland, Quebec, Vietnam, Lebanon, etc.”
“Ooooh, so that’s the origin of the Yule log cake!”
“Yes it is. The recipe evolved a bit throughout history, and pretty much everyone has his own version of it now, but it all comes from this Parisian baker.”
“Now tell me Grandpa, you said the recipe spread all over the world, so how do you make a Yule log cake?”
“It’s getting late now, I think it’s time for you to go to bed! ”
“Pleeeeeeeease, Grandpa! Tell me the recipe of a Yule log cake!”
“This will be for next time, kid! Good night…”
Grandpa fell asleep again. The flames next to you are almost all gone now, only red ashes remain in the fireplace. The snowstorm outside has stopped. You look at the clock on the wall, it’s now past midnight. The Asgardians, the Celts, the Parisians… Tonight’s stories are still resonating in your head. Then comes one sentence:
“One day, I’ll know how to make a Yule log cake!”
So, how was the experiment?
Did you read this article entirely?
Did you let your mind create its own images?
Share your experience in the comments,
and if you want to know the rest of the story, stay tuned!