Heap on more wood! --the wind

is chill:But let it whistle as it will,

We'll keep our Christmas merry still.

- Sir Walter Scott,

"The Lady of the Last Minstrel"

I suspect that Sir Walter never had to worry about the red burn days, green burn days and other restrictions on the burning of wood in our area. Christmas becomes more festive with a crackling fire and the traditional yule log.

Yule logs have a rich history predating Christianity. The long winter gloom so distressed ancient people that they built fires to encourage the sun to return. The word "yule" probably comes from the Gothic word for wheel. These people thought the sun was on a turning wheel and alternately cast its light toward the earth and away from it again.

Druid priests celebrated the season of the winter solstice by choosing a huge log that would be ceremoniously burned and then saved to rekindle a fire for the next year. Similar customs sprang up all over Europe - in France, the Buche Day noel log is still lit in some houses on Christmas Eve. In Italy, the ceremonial log is called the "ceppo." In Spain, Greece, Bulgaria and many other countries, similar logs burn in the home on Christmas Eve.

In Scandinavian countries, in addition to inviting back the sun, the custom honored Thor. He was the god of thunder and was believed to protect the human race from evil and promote good crops and fertility of both people and livestock. The custom became a part of joyous celebrations, with feasting, drinking and singing and included the ritual of giving gifts.

Yule logs were dragged to great halls and castles in England with ivy covered ropes. Decorated with sprigs of evergreen, they awaited the ceremonial lighting. Interestingly enough, the custom of yule logs migrated to the American South. There, tradition held that no one need work while the log still burned. For this reason, slaves sprinkled water on the log to keep the fire going for as long as possible.

Dragging a huge log into my home certainly wouldn't work, but a small yule log makes a wonderful decoration or gift. The most common yule logs are pine, spruce or fir, although in other areas, ash, oak or beech are often used.

A yule log may be nothing more than an attractively sawn log with a large bow. If desired, decorations can be far more lavish. Drill holes in the log, tuck in ornaments, bows or holly as greenery to add to the season. If a fireplace is used on a regular basis, place the yule log at the side to enhance the holiday spirit. Lay it in a large basket with pine cones or other decorations. Keep anything flammable away from the fire to avoid hazards. Before lighting the log, remove decorations that flare up dangerously or give off toxic fumes while they are burned.

Whether or not you choose to burn the yule log, keep in mind that using wood for winter heat requires knowledge of the wood. Burn only seasoned wood that has been cut and allowed to dry for at least one year. Green wood sputters and pops and gives off creosote that collects in the chimney and may cause a chimney fire. Dry wood provides far more heat per unit of weight because the heat is not used to evaporate the water before the wood burns.

Consult the accompanying chart for information on kinds of wood available in our area and their quality for burning. Whether you burn wood for a day as in the traditional yule log, or for winter heat, it's important to remember to burn quality wood safely. Carefully collect and store your yule log and other wood, and the reward is heat and enjoyment and decorating for the holiday season.

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Additional Information

Wood for fuel

Common species Heat Distinctive General

potential characteristics rating

Oak high burns slowly excellent

Fruitwood high burns slowly excellent

Mtn. mahogany high very hard good

Cottonwood low smokes fair

Aspen low smokes fair

Juniper medium splits easily good

Pinon medium distinct odor excellent

Lodgepole pine medium burns rapidly good

Douglas fir high heavy smoke good

True fir low heavy smoke fair

Spruce low sparks readily poor