The centuries-old tradition comes with a few surprises.

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Waiting for santa in California, ca. 1949.
Credit: Kirn Vintage Stock / Contributor

For all the talk during the Christmas season about a Yule log, the actual story behind the holiday tradition isn't commonly known to most. Here is the history behind the yule log and why it remains a tradition today.

While bûche de Noël is a dessert that can be found now on holiday tables across the United States, the roots of the original Yule log tradition go centuries back to Norway, where no such cake was eaten. For centuries, celebrants observed Yule, a festival commemorating the winter solstice. To mark the shortest day of the year and the subsequent return of longer days, the Yule log was burned to welcome back the sun.

With the arrival of Christianity, some of the traditions between the religious holiday and the pagan festival became conflated (hence why Yuletide and Christmastime are often viewed as interchangeable terms these days, even though they're historically tied to distinctive holidays attached to vastly different belief systems). Families burned Yule logs—"log" is a bit of an understatement here; most families would use a tree, placing the wider end of the trunk into the fireplace first—through the duration of the 12 days of Christmas. With modern advancements like central heat and the impractical logistics of hauling an entire tree inside, the spirit of the ancient Yule log tradition has since been replaced by a far more manageable one, represented by the burning of a much smaller (but equally meaningful) log in the fireplace. Another contemporary variation on the tradition is a centerpiece, in which a birch log or the like is decorated with greenery and candles.

There's also the French version of the tradition, referred to as bûche de Noël, which is responsible for the Christmas cake that's now beloved across the globe. The chocolate roulade with cream filling is often decorated in meringue mushrooms or pistachio-nut "moss" and makes for an impressively festive centerpiece at holiday gatherings.

But whether you're burning one or baking one, there's no denying that the Yule log is a special tradition that's worth adopting this season.   

WATCH: How to Make Bûche de Noël

If your holiday go-to has traditionally been layer cake, try something new this year.