As far back in history as anyone in my family knows, beginning in the hills of Ireland, on this night (December 21, or around that night) our family lights a Yule log, wrapped with holly.
On the longest night of the year, the sun’s “rebirth” was celebrated, symbolized by the return of the Oak King (thus, the oak Yule log). From this day forward, the days become longer.
In Celtic tradition, there is a legend of a battle between the Oak King and the Holly King, who fight for control as the Wheel of the Year turns each season. At the Yule (which simply means wheel), the Oak King conquers the Holly King, and then reigns until Midsummer, when the Holly King returns.
After we light the Yule fire, each person in the house, beginning with the youngest, tosses a holly leaf into the fire in hopes/making a wish/saying a prayer for something in the coming year. When we hear the holly leaf sizzle or crack, we know our intention has been heard.
The following day, after the fire has completely burned out, we save the few charred remains in a special box, which has a Celtic knot carved into the top. Each year, when we light the Yule fire, we toss in the remains of last year’s fire, thus giving us a connection to years and centuries past, while moving into the future. As much of Ireland was settled by Scandinavians more than 1000 years ago, it’s likely that’s where this tradition actually originated.
My grandparents brought this tradition to Canada and then my parents continued it.
The image I’ve attached is from one of our past Yule fires.