Thursday 7 December 2017

A Yule... Clog?

"Wassail drink were allus best, when o'er a yule-clog boiled"

Illustration of people collecting a Yule log from Chambers Book of Days (1864), p.734. 
I think I can safely assume that any Brit, at least, reading this blog will be familiar with the concept of a Yule log at Christmas. These days, it probably takes the form of a delicious swiss roll coated in milk chocolate. However historically, in Yorkshire and further north into Scotland, the Yule log was more usually termed a Yule clog. Nothing to do with footwear - a clog was originally any substantial or roughly shaped piece of wood. This definition pre-dates the shoes by hundreds of years and in fact it’s probable that our modern day clogs take their name from the historic term for a piece of wood.

Father Christmas with a Yule log,
Illustrated London News, 23 Dec 1848
The Yule clog was burnt on the fire at Christmas and was the subject of lots of traditions and superstitions. In the East Riding, it would be brought into the house on Christmas Eve and set on the hearthrug in front of the fire. In some areas the clog was sprinkled with corn and cider, or a girl would sit on top as it was dragged inside. Each person in the house would then sit silently upon it and wish three wishes (which were sure to come true if only they were kept secret). In Swaledale, it was deemed unlucky to have to light it again after it had been begun and it shouldn’t be allowed to go out until the whole clog had burned away. However, a fragment of it must be rescued and kept as kindling to light the next year’s clog. In Ripon, the chandlers sent large mold-candles and the coopers yule clogs, which had to be large enough that it didn’t all burn away in one night. On some farms, the servants were entitled to ale with their meals as long as the Yule clog lasted.

Unsurprisingly, candles were closely associated with the yule clog. Mrs Day, a native of Swaledale, related in 1914 that

‘just before supper on Christmas Eve (where furmety is eaten), while the Yule log is burning, all other lights are put out, and the candles lit from the Yule log by the youngest person present. While they are lit, all are silent and wish. It is common practice that the wish be kept a secret. Once the candles are on the table, silence may be broken. They must be allowed to burn themselves out, and no other lights may be lit that night’.

The similarity in spelling between the Yule log and the Yule clog is interesting. You could easily be forgiven for assuming that they are closely related terms. Possibly they are, but the etymology (that is, the roots of the words, back into Old English or Norse) for both words are so obscure that it’s impossible to say with any certainty.

Yule clog: the heavy piece of wood burnt on the fire at Christmas, in Scotland in particular.

Alexandra Medcalf
Project Archivist, Yorkshire Historic Dictionary (@YorksDictionary)

Edit 25/01/2019 The Yorkshire Historical Dictionary is now available online at

  • Brand, John, Observations on popular Antiquities, Vol. 1, 1813.
  • Crowther, Jan, ‘Christmas Facts and Fancies (with particular reference to East Yorkshire),, accessed 6th December 2017.
  • Partridge, J. B., ‘ Folklore from Yorkshire (North Riding)’, Folklore, Vol. 25, no. 3, 1914, pp. 375-377.
  • Rose, H. J., ‘Folklore Scraps’, Folklore, Vol. 34, no. 2, 1923, pp. 154-158.
  • Turner, J Horsfall, Yorkshire Anthology: Ballads and Songs - Ancient and Modern, 1901.  

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