There seem to be a hundred origins of the word Yule according to the writers on popular antiquities. The most ingenious is that of Bryant, who derives the Feast Juul or Yule from a Hebrew word--Lile, Night. Lile, he adds, is formed from a verb signifying to howl, because at that time, i.e. at night, the beasts of the forest go about howling for their prey. "In the Northern counties, nothing is more common than to call that melancholy barking dogs oft make in the night Yowling, and which they think generally happens when some one is dying in the neighbourhood."
Christmas Day, in the primitive Church, was always observed as the Sabbath day, and like that, preceded by an Eve, or Vigil. Hence our present Christmas Eve.
On the night of this eve our ancestors were wont to light up candles of an uncommon size, called Christmas candles, and lay a log of wood upon the fire, called a Yule-clog, or Christmas-block, to illuminate the house, and, as it were, to turn night into day. This custom is in some measure still kept in the North of England.
The following occurs in Herrick's Hesoerides:--
"Come bring with a noise,
My merry, merrie boys,
The Christmass Log to the firing:
While my good Dame she
Bids ye all be free,
And drink to your heart's desiring.
"With the last year's Brand
Light the new Block and,
For good successe in his spending,
On your psaltries play,
That sweet luck may
Come while the Log is teending.
"Drink now the strong beere,
Cut the white loaf here,
The while the meat is a-shredding
For the rare mince-pie,
And the plums stand by
To fill the paste that's a-kneading."
Christmas, says Blount, was called the Feast of Lights in the Western or Latin Church, because they used many lights or candles at the feast; or rather because Christ, the light of all lights, that true light, then came into the world. Hence the Christmas candle, and what was, perhaps, only a succedaneum, the Yule-block, or clog, before candles were in general use. Thus a large coal is often set apart at present, in the North, for the same purpose, i.e. to make a great light on Yule or Christmas Eve. Lights, indeed, seem to have been used upon all festive occasions, e.g. our illuminations and fireworks, on the news of victories.
In The Gentleman's Magazine for 1790 a writer traces the Yule log to the Cyclops of Euripides. (See Act i, sc i).