"Yule" in Anglo-Saxon, "geol" was the winter solstice in England. Celtics and Teutonic people got into it as well. They'd burn a huge log to honor the return of the sun. Kind of a carbon sacrifice, if you will. Both as an offering and as a symbol. Who are we to judge. Just look at candy canes.
There's also a cyclical nature to the whole thing, as this year's log has to be lit from last year's log. No, I don't think it was burning all year.
Other beliefs crept into the Log ceremony as well. If girls with unwashed hands were to touch the log, it would cause the fire to burn dully. And also those who helped drag the log would be protected from witchcraft all year long. There's also a note of a practice of drawing chalk around the log before it was placed into the flame. One author thinks it's a recollection of human sacrifice. That seems way to CSI Miami for me. I think they drew chalk around the log to prevent ants from getting into the house. That's the most rational answer.
Now, since this is Blasphemes, I must also discuss the more important and modern Yule Log tradition - and that is The Yule Log TV show which airs traditionally on Christmas Eve or Christmas morning, originally on New York City television station WPIX but now on many other stations. A radio simulcast (of the musical portion) was broadcast on sister station WPIX-FM.
The program, which has run anywhere from two to four hours in length, is a film loop of a yule log burning in a fireplace, with a traditional soundtrack of classic Christmas music playing in the background. It airs without commercial interruption.
The Yule Log was created in 1966 by Fred M. Thrower, President and CEO of WPIX, Inc. Inspired by an animated Coca-Cola commercial a year earlier that showed Santa Claus at a fireplace, he envisioned this television program as a televised Christmas gift to those residents of "The Big Apple" who lived in apartments and homes without fireplaces. Ahh... the warm glow of the Zenith.
The original film was shot at Gracie Mansion, the official residence of the Mayor of New York City John Lindsay. An estimated $4,000 (US) of advertising along with a roller derby telecast that night was canceled on Christmas Eve for the show's inaugural airing. Thrower, and WPIX-FM programming director Charlie Whittaker selected the music, largely based on the easy listening format the radio station had at that time, with the likes of Percy Faith, Nat King Cole, Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops, Mantovani and The Ray Conniff Singers to name a few. During the shoot, the producers removed a protective fire grate so that the blaze could be seen to its best advantage. Unfortunately, a stray spark damaged a nearby antique rug valued at $4,000.
The program was both a critical and ratings success, and by popular demand, it was rebroadcast for 23 consecutive years, beginning in 1967. However, by 1969 it was already clear that the original 16 mm film was quickly deteriorating from wear and needed to be re-shot. (In addition, the original loop was only seventeen seconds long, resulting in a visibly jerky and artificial appearance.) Station producer William Cooper, a future recipient of a Peabody Award, again asked to shoot the loop at Gracie Mansion. However the mayor's office, remembering the mishap with the rug, refused permission. So in 1970, WPIX found a fireplace with similar andirons at a residence in California and filmed a burning log on 35 mm film there on a hot August day. This version, whose loop runs approximately six minutes and three seconds, has been the one viewers have seen ever since.
It also available on DVD at dollar stores everywhere.