Y is for Yule Logs

Y is for Yule Logs

Yule logs make me think of everything that is magical about Christmas. Magical in the sense of goodness and purity in the face of evil. Magical as in the palest flicker of light growing and spreading and finally vanquishing great darkness. Magical as in joy and laugher and peace. Magical as in differences set aside, priorities rearranged, rush and bustle turned to rest. Magical as in quiet reflection. Magical as in happy families spending time together. Magical as in self-love overcome, and replaced by that perfect love for God and others, that comes only from Him. Magical as in… well…

When I was a child, the centerpiece of our living room was the brick fireplace, especially at Christmas. On the warmly orange-hued wooden mantle above would be placed simple but treasured mementos of Christmases past, fresh sprigs of fir, a candle or two perhaps, and always at the center, our small nativity crèche, representing the Child Who, to my parents and grandparents, was without question the center of our family and home. To the left of the fireplace were built-in shelves of books, which in I innocently assumed as a child were simply a necessary staple of life in every family. There were sturdy, wise-looking sets of encyclopedias, Bibles of course, handbooks of famous speeches and quotations, collected Works of Shakespeare, an atlas and immense two-volume dictionary, plus a set of classic childrens’ novels, a ten-volume set of Maxwell’s “Bible Story,” and, at Christmas, a variety of seasonal books like Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” “The Night Before Christmas,” and Ruth Bell Graham’s story of their annual family Christmas traditions. At either end of the fireplace and book case was a large, comfortable easy chair, well-worn enough to welcome without fear a seat-full of little people curled up together or perched on the laps of loving adults. Directly in front and running the full length of the fireplace and book case, was a hearth about a foot wide and deep, topped with slender slabs of slate, a perfect spot for perching to listen to stories read aloud, or to pose for family pictures. And finally, a warm wall-to-wall wool carpet for yet other little ones to stretch out on, tummy down, heads lifted and resting on elbows, hands cupped under chins, to listen to and take part in the daily Scripture reading and prayer, and to listen to read-aloud stories, or simply to share in peaceful family chatter.

Oddly enough, we didn’t burn wood in the fireplace all that often. But the thing is, it was there. Ready. And on special occasions, like a dark winter evening after the Christmas tree had been put up, or on the evening after Christmas day when everyone was happy and contentedly tired, or perhaps after a long wild day on the ski hill, we’d all gather around the fireplace and the yule log would be lit. Christmas at our house always meant a whole passel of aunts and uncles and cousins and grandparents, and lonely old (or often, simply a bit odd) people from church, and maybe a couple of young Mormon missionary boys, or young carpet cleaners or Fuller Brush salesmen, trying to make a living far away from home and family, whom my mom had invited to spend Christmas (or indeed any other occasion) with us. We didn’t have a special, big log, like you hear about in old stories, nor did we buy those fancy rolled-paper yule logs impregnated with chemicals that would make the flames dance and sparkle with rainbow colors, though one year I did try to make my own version out of rolled newspapers and a recipe from a Christmas magazine, but without much success. And, oh thank goodness, without cable TV, or indeed any TV, there were no yule logs cracking merrily on the silver screen!

In fact, looking back I have no idea where the wood came from. There was simply a pile of it out at the open end of the car port, all nicely chopped, sometimes fruit tree wood for we lived in an area of orchards, sometimes fir or perhaps spruce. I suppose there must have been someone in the area who chopped and delivered firewood for a small price, and my dad must have periodically ordered a load. Anyway, there it would be, and we’d bring in a good armful, bits of snow brushing off and leaving a little trail of cold wet drops on the floor. We’d pile it up in the fireplace, light it, and gather around quietly, often already dressed in our pyjamas, the heat of warm, crackling, orangey flames wrapping us in comfort, and transporting us, in our imaginations, into the worlds of story-land. The lights would be turned out, except for the sparkling of the Christmas tree lights across the room, with the reflection of the outdoors lights shimmering off snow and slipping into our warm space through the big picture windows, and of course, a light from the goose-neck lamp illuminating the pages of the book. Depending on the species of wood, the room might be filled with sweet fruity scents, or the more traditional wafts of evergreen. Gradually, the littlest heads would gently fall over, eyes closed, drifting into dreamland. When the stories were done, the children would willingly go to bed, and the adults would gather in the kitchen for a last cup of tea, their quiet voices in the background providing a sense of safety and belonging to children scattered all over the house on air mattresses and couches.

Of course, there were other magical moments of Christmas, like rising at 6 am on Christmas morning, in the darkest days of winter, and tip-toeing down the long hall from the bedrooms to peek with one eye through the little crack where the accordion door leading into the living room didn’t quite meet the door post. There would be the Christmas tree, lights left on overnight for this one special night, with heaps of colorfully wrapped packages underneath, where at bedtime there had been none. There would be the stockings hanging from the mantle, sometimes a dozen or more, lumpy and stuffed to the brim with oranges and apples and nuts and a few candies, and in each one a small gift or two. And always poking from the top of each stocking, a candy cane, an individual-serving box of cereal (that exquisite once-a-year treat for children raised on pancake and porridge breakfasts), and a tiny doll for each girl, a little toy car for each boy. We knew pretty much what was inside the stockings, simple and useful gifts mostly, just like the ones under the tree, but still the thought of them sitting there, forbidden until the adults had finally risen lazily, and had a unbearably long cup of morning coffee before allowing us to open the door to the magical room, made them infinitely desirable.

The years passed. I grew up, married and had children. Sadly, we lived in homes without fireplaces, and at first I was disappointed because it seemed like the magic was disappearing. But then I would look in the eyes of my little ones and realize that the magic was still there, even though the symbols might be different for them. And gradually, I began to realize also that an even deeper magic was growing in my own heart, the true magic of Christmas. As I really came to know the Child of Christmas, I discovered the true Spirit of the season growing in my heart, adding to, enriching, fulfilling, surpassing the magic of my childhood memories. The light that danced in the flames of the yule log, that wrapped us in warmth and happiness and security and family unity, was, I discovered, only a dim reflection of Jesus, the true Light of the world, and the Christ of Christmas.

I have come to understand that it is only His light that brings true goodness and purity in a world of great evils, of poverty and war and abuse and broken families and empty, sorrowful Christmases for many. His is a light that was born as a baby in a dark, cold stable, that grew up in a world in which craving for power ruled, along with a total disregard for the value of every human life – a world not really much different than this world today. His was a light that seemed finally to have been cruelly extinguished in an execution of the worst kind, clamored for by those who claimed most to be seeking light. And yet it turned out that this light is a living Light, unconquerable by all that the darkness that evil could cast at it; a Light that three short days later burst forth, leaving an empty tomb behind, having destroyed death, the trump-card of evil. This is the Light that longs to fill every willing heart, the Light that already has vanquished the forces of darkness and continues to grow and spread; this Light to which one day, perhaps very soon, every knee will bow and every tongue confess that “Jesus is Lord!” And it is in this Light that magical childhood memories of Christmas find fulfillment, and are worked out in true joy and laughter and peace, in human hearts and lives where seemingly irreconcilable differences are set aside, true priorities sought and followed, lives of stressed-out rush and bustle brought to rest, families healed and united, self-centered uncaring people turned into human-beings as they were meant to be, in relationship with their Creator, loving Him with all their hearts and passing on His love to others all around. I challenge you to stop and reflect, to remember the small magical moments and symbols in your own past, and then open wide your heart and life to the One who alone can fulfill your longings, Who longs to bring You His perfect light and life.

Norma Hill

Date: May 20, 2007

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