One of the things I miss since I moved into this house is an open fire, especially at this time of year. There’s nothing to match the golden glow of real flames, and they bring an extra element of festive coziness to our Christmas preparations. We had a log burning stove at my last house, and I absolutely loved it. With the tree up, twinkling lights on and stockings hung, the lit fire was the finishing touch to our own Christmas story.
Growing up, we had an open hearth in our cottage living room, and my dad was an expert at laying a fire which would often be blazing moments after being lit. He knew just how many newspaper ‘logs’ to place at the bottom with the right gaps in between to let the air circulate. On top of that, a good few sticks of kindling, then a layer of coal. And once the coal began to glow, you could start adding your bigger logs.
But it was important to know your wood, as different types of tree burn in different ways, and these days, your best bet is to go to a reputable supplier for properly seasoned logs to get the most out of your fire. Paying for good logs means you will spend less on maintaining your chimney and stove. There is an old saying that helps you remember how different species of tree burn.
‘Oak logs will warm you well, if they’re old and dry,
Larch logs of pinewood smell, but sparks will fly,
Beech logs for Christmas time, Yew logs heat well,
“Scotch” logs it is a crime for anyone to sell,
Birch logs will burn too fast, Chestnut not at all,
Hawthorn logs are good to last, if you cut them in the fall.’
I tried to find out what ‘Scotch’ logs are, and couldn’t come up with an answer (unless it’s Scots pine? But then, pinewood is already mentioned in the second line). And why is it a crime to sell them?
The last word ‘fall’ might make you think this poem originated in America, but in fact the word ‘fall’ was used for ‘Autumn’ in old English, but has not been in common speech in this country since Shakespearean times.
Dad lists many other species of wood that will burn very well, including sycamore, laurel, hornbeam hawthorn and fruit, which also give off a pleasant smell. But avoid burning acacia as it releases a terrible odour.
Of course the traditional log to burn at Christmas time is the Yule Log, but I haven’t heard of anyone doing it recently. The only Yule Log you’re likely to come across now is the chocolate version, although I’d be very happy to stand corrected!
The Yule Log is no ordinary piece of wood, but is a custom that some say pre-dates Christianity. The tradition is that you retain a partly burned piece of a log from the previous Christmas, and keep it dry all year so that it readily ignites on Christmas Day. Then it is brought into the house on Christmas Eve and ceremoniously laid on the fire. When it is lit the next day, the piece of wood that is to be the new Yule Log is placed on top and allowed to burn. But, as it is needed for the following year, once it is about half done, it needs to be taken out and kept safe and dry for 12 months. How you take it out without burning yourself or your surroundings might be a topic for debate, but once it has cooled, you then put it under your bed to protect your home and family from fire. Of course, in the days when this practice was common, house fires were a very real and ever present threat.
While the Yule Log is burning is the time on Christmas Day that you make merry, enjoy the good food, good drink and pleasant company. As one saying goes: ‘Old wood to burn, old wine to drink, old friends to talk to, and old books to read’.
This year, it is definitely going to be different, with smaller gatherings rather than the large getogethers some might be used to. But I’m optimistic that by Christmas 2021, things might have returned to something like normal again.
We can but live in hope!
Contact me, and read more, at countrymansdaughter.com. Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug
This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 18th Dec 2020 and the Gazette & Herald on 16th Dec 2020