Christmas wouldn’t be the same at our house without a Bûche de Noël — that luscious chocolate sponge cake rolled with cream and decorated with chocolate icing to look like a log. Half the fun is making the garnish: tiny, realistic mushrooms piped from meringue and dusted with cinnamon. For me, it’s a nod to the French and Belgian heritage of my father. But the cake itself hearkens back to the Yule log of my Norwegian and English ancestors: an actual log, the bigger the better, hauled into the house on Christmas Eve with singing and dancing and burned for the 12 days of Christmas. As fireplaces grew smaller, it must have become easier to use them for baking a cake than for burning a tree – and the Bûche de Noël — the Yule log — was born.
In its Scandinavian roots, this tradition was part of “Yule” – an ancient winter solstice festival that celebrated the return of the sun after the long dark winter days. The English Henry Bourne explained in 1725:
“[the log and candles lit from it] were to Illuminate the House, aud [sic] turn the Night into Day …. The Log has had the Name of the Yule-Log, from its being burnt as an Emblem of the returning Sun, and the Increase of its Light and Heat.”
Not surprisingly, Christians adopted the tradition to celebrate the coming of the SON. It became especially popular in the west of England, where entire villages would celebrate “bringing in the Yule log” the day before Christmas. An enormous log would be dragged into the village to singing and dancing. It would be hollowed out and filled with oils and spices and lit to burn throughout the Christmas season.
Christmas songs were sung around the log, but not the somber and musically more sophisticated hymns that were sung in church. One that was a great favorite in English villages was “The First Nowell.” Written by the 15th century in France and brought across the Channel by wandering troubadours, it finally was included in Church of England hymnals in the mid-1800s.
“The First Nowell” (or Noël) simply and vividly narrates the coming of the Christ-child to the shepherds and magi. It takes some liberties with the scriptural text, tying the two stories together via the central image of the star. In the carol, the star’s “great light” draws not only the kings but the shepherds to Bethlehem where it stops over the manger. Light from the heavens points to the One Light who has come to illuminate the world, like the Yule log points from the winter solstice to Christmas.
Noël has come to mean “Yuletide” or “the Christmas season,” but the word carries with it the joy of the Yule-log celebration. Repeating “Noel!” as in the refrain of the carol is like shouting “Happy Birthday!” The origin of the word in the song is uncertain and there’s a richness of meaning when you see all the possibilities together:
- If it comes from the French Noël, it means “a shout of joy” at Jesus’ birth.
- It may come from the Medieval Latin: either from natalis, “birth,” or novella, “news.” So it can be a shout of joy at the good news of his birth!
- But then there’s that English “Nowell” that appears in the early texts. Was that a phonetic spelling of the French or, as some suggest, a contraction of the English: “now-well” or “now all is well”?
I love that third option. It lends new meaning to the chorus of the carol. Just imagine the angels singing, “Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel, Born is the King of Israel!” Or — as it might be translated — Now all is well, now all is well – all manner of thing shall be well (to insert a quote from St Julian of Norwich), for “Born is the King of Israel!”
Throw a log on the fire, light a big candle, and sing a couple verses of “The First Noël” (listen here, where you can sing along with Kitty Cleveland).
The First Noel
The First Noel the angel did say Was to certain poor shepherds
in fields as they lay;
In fields as they lay, keeping their sheep,
On a cold winter’s night that was so deep.
Refrain: Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel,
Born is the King of Israel.
They looked up and saw a star
Shining in the east beyond them far,
And to the earth it gave great light,
And so it continued both day and night.
And by the light of that same star
Three wise men came from country far;
To seek for a king was their intent,
And to follow the star wherever it went.
This star drew nigh to the northwest,
O’er Bethlehem it took it rest,
And there it did both stop and stay
Right over the place where Jesus lay.
Then entered in those wise men three
Full reverently upon their knee,
and offered there in his presence
Their gold, and myrrh, and frankincense.
Then let us all with one accord
Sing praises to our heavenly Lord;
That hath made heaven and earth of naught,
And with his blood mankind hath bought
© 2015 Sarah Christmyer
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Each post in this Advent series features a different Advent or Christmas carol, all of which can be found on Kitty Cleveland’s CD, O Holy Night.
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