In Ireland, the custom of burning gigantic candles still prevails amongst the Catholic community on Christmas Eve, and in the north of England it is also common. Light at all times appears to have been used on occasions of festivity and rejoicing—from the rude bonfire to the wax-lit drawing-room; but in these candles we trace another remnant of the ancient type of the season’s rejoicings, for it was the custom of the Romans, during the festival of the Saturnalia, to present wax candles to each other.
In the yule log, or huge block of coal, which in the North answers the same purpose, and is carefully reserved for the occasion, Brand sees the counterpart of the Midsummer fires, made within doors on account of the cold weather of the winter solstace, as those in the hot seasons were kindled in the open air.
Bede, in speaking of the observances of Christmas Eve, tells us that this was the very night observed in the land before, by the heathen Saxons. “They begin their year,” he says, “on the eighth of the calends of January, now our Christmas Day; and the very night before, which is now holy to us, was by them called, on account of its ceremonies, the ‘mother of nights’.”
The yule log was one of these ceremonies, and seems to have been used by them as an emblem of the return of the sun.
But the old leaven clung to the anniversary under its new name, and the festive spirit of the Saturnalia, rather than the fasting one enjoined by Gregory Nazianzen and the early fathers of the church, continued, and even still continues (if it does not adorn cross-paths) to feed the eye and delight the ear, to feast and drink, crown doors, and encourage dancing, just as in those days when the stern old father penned his exhortation on forbearance from them. Only Christianity has tempered excess with moderation, and the refinement of its teaching has softened down the fierce license of wild joy which the restoration of mercy, peace, and brotherhood to earth but for a few short days imparted to the pagans.