Janet Emily Demarest

Storyteller, Author and Educator

A Merry, Very Victorian Christmas! (Excerpt)

One of the very first things we do at Christmas is to decorate our homes with greenery and such: holly, ivy, mistletoe, poinsettias, as well as our majestic Christmas tree. We will talk at length about the Christmas tree later, but in honor of these traditional greens, perhaps we should take a moment to explain where they came from, what they mean and why they have become such a part of our Christmas celebrations!

Let’s begin with the Yule Log, famously mentioned in the above song.

One of the important traditions brought to America from Europe – probably from Germanic tribes – was the Yule log. It became one of the absolute necessities of the holiday. Even Saint Nicholas was often depicted holding a Yule log!

Its earliest origins may have been from the ancient Norse worship of Thor and his association with the mighty oak tree. It symbolized the sun, the hope of renewal and rebirth of the world after the cold dead of winter.

There were many requirements for this seemingly innocuous wooden log! The Yule log needed to be a nice thick stump or root, placed in the main fireplace or kitchen hearth. It was also surrounded with superstition:

• It needed to be kept burning for 12 hours (lest bad luck follow).
• It was not to be bought but gotten from your own land or your neighbor’s land (lest bad luck follow).
• It had to ignite the first time it was lit (lest bad luck follow).
• It had to be lighted with a piece of wood saved from the year before (lest – yep, more bad luck - the house burn down).

As the Yule log burned, the family would huddle together, while someone told chilling ghost stories and tales of long ago. A popular Victorian game was to watch the shadows on the wall while the log burned. If someone’s shadow was seen intact on the wall, one received blessings. But if the shadow of the individual had no head, it would mean that the hapless, headless person would be dead within the year! (Oh, the Victorians knew how to have a good time.)

Quick Links

Selected Works

Christmas History and Traditions
Filled with amazing and obscure facts, the fascinating stories and histories of the things we do at Christmas every year - often without ever understanding why! - is certain to delight young and old alike.
Nonfiction
From Manhattan to Montauk, to read alone or aloud, the best loved legends and lore of Long Island!