Yule logs - history

The centrepiece of many at Christmas table

The French Yule log – an ode to the sacred fire


Before the sun came up was the time to go and chop down a fruit tree and choose the strongest part of its hardwood trunk. Carried inside to the largest fireplace in the house, it was laid on the embers to slowly burn from Christmas Eve until New Year’s Day, just over a week later. Some foliage was added, as well as a splash of wine, cider or beer, and honey, perhaps even a drop of holy water. Like a druidic ritual dating back thousands of years, it took place every winter solstice, on the longest night of the year. Lit during the tranquillity of Yuletide, the log would burn for seven days. That was the Yuletide log in France of the Middle Ages. 


Centuries later, at the beginning of the chaotic 1900’s, the French had abandoned their large fireplaces in favour of wood burning stoves, and no longer used large logs, preferring small pieces of wood instead. Somebody came up with the idea of placing a piece of wood on the Christmas dinner table, decorating it with sugar and candied fruit. Then a pâtissier suggested that going from the fireplace to the table was quite a nice outcome for a log, and why not make it edible? Was this in Paris (1834), in Lyon (1860) or in Monaco (1898)? Thankfully, there was no Yule log conflict, as the sweet creations all followed the same theme: a sponge cake with a chocolate, coffee, chestnut, vanilla, or Grand Marnier buttercream ganache, placed on a piece of lightly buttered paper (we use greaseproof nowadays paper), filled with a lighter cream, then rolled before being put in the oven. 50 centimetres long and enough for eight guests, it was left to cool, and topped with sugar, candied fruit or whatever else took their fancy. The log would be served with a glass of Champagne or a young, fresh Jura wine.


Surprisingly, in Europe, only the French bûche (Yule log) – and more contemporary versions made with mousse, tiramisu, gelées, or light brioche with exotic fruits – is still a highlight of the Christmas dinner table, even though a few French-speaking countries (Lebanon, Vietnam) have also kept this tradition alive. The British have Christmas pudding, the Italians – Pannetone, and the French-Canadians are partial to a Beigne. Regardless: the tradition of the French Yule log still burns brightly.