Since today is Christmas Eve, I decided to write about a Christmas tradition which was regularly observed on that day in the British Isles during the Regency, though I have never seen any mention of it in Regency novels which are set during the Christmas season. The Yule Log often figures in Regencies with a Christmas setting, but the equally important Yule Candle gets short shrift.
Accordingly, I shall wax historical on the origins and traditions of the Yule Candle …
Yule was a pagan celebration around the winter solstice in which many peoples of Northern Europe had engaged for centuries, long before the birth of Christ. Because this was the time of year with the shortest days and the longest nights, much of the celebration was centered on fire, seen as substitute for the Sun, which they called the "fire-wheel" and which was little in evidence at this time of year. Originally, the enormous yule-log was set afire in an open clearing, while the yule-torch burned near the improvised outdoor banqueting table to illuminate the feasting, drinking, singing and dancing which were such an integral part of these festivities. But as the centuries passed, and life became a bit more refined, these celebrations were moved indoors. By the Middle Ages, the yule-torch had become a large candle, and soon thereafter, the yule candle was co-opted by the Christians as a symbol of Christ, whom they considered to be the "light of the world." From that time on, a large candle was part of Christmas Eve services in most churches.
But the use of a large candle on Christmas Eve was not restricted to the church. Most people also had one at home, though the customs surrounding the use of this candle varied from country to country. By the eighteenth century, in Ireland, the candle to be used in the home was usually first blessed by the local priest. In Scotland and much of northern England, the candle was not to be purchased, it must be a gift. By the last decade of the eighteenth century, it became the practice for chandlers, grocers and other merchants to present their regular customers with a large candle at Christmas as a gesture of appreciation for their custom through the year. This practice was soon followed by merchants in the rest of England, including London, and many merchants continued to provide Yule Candles to their regular customers through the end of the nineteenth century.
It should be noted that the first written record of these Christmas candles being described specifically as "Yule Candles" was by John Jamieson, the Scottish lexicographer, in his An Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language, which was first published 1808. The term had probably been in common use in the spoken language long before that date, but based on the entry in Jamieson’s Dictionary, we can be certain that the term "Yule Candle" was in use before the Regency began. In 1817, the Reverend George Young, of Whitby, published his A History of Whitby and Streoneshalh Abbey, in which he wrote about the use of the Yule Candle among the members of his parish and the various superstitions which surrounded it. From this we know that those superstitions still held sway during the Regency.
The Yule Candle had to be quite large, as it was to be lit at sunset on Christmas Eve and then allowed to burn through the night, until dawn, or the beginning of the Christmas service. There were dire consequences if the candle should burn out before dawn. Period documents indicate the Yule Candle was very thick and was typically eighteen to twenty inches in height. In most cases, the candle was white, though there is some indication that colored candles were in use after the mid-nineteenth century, following the introduction of aniline dyes in the 1850s. It seems fairly certain that most Yule Candles used during the Regency would have been white, or the natural creamy color of the wax of which they were made.
The general practice in the homes of England and Scotland was that the Yule Candle would be placed on the dining table where the Christmas Eve dinner was to be eaten. Once the candle was in place, it was not to be moved for any reason. In most places, the Yule Candle was to be lit just as the sun went down, only by the head of the household, preferably male. Superstition held that it was very unlucky to light the Yule Candle before dusk, or after the sun was down. The person who set the candle alight was also the only person who could extinguish it, should that be necessary. But the custom was that the Yule Candle should be allowed to burn through the night, until dawn or the beginning of the Christmas service on the morrow. It was believed that if the Yule Candle were to burn out or be snuffed before Christmas morning, it would be an omen that the family would suffer severe ill-fortune, in particular, the death of a family member before the year was out. In addition, anyone who lit another candle from the burning Yule Candle on Christmas Eve could expect some great misfortune to befall them in the coming year.
Once the Yule Candle had been lit, and the family sat down to their Christmas Eve dinner, no one was supposed to leave the table until the meal was over and the whole family left the table together. Anyone who rose from the table alone, before the meal was finished, was taking the risk that something terrible would happen to them in the coming year. In addition, it was considered very bad luck to have an odd number of people in attendance at the Christmas Eve feast. Most hostesses would invite a friend or neighbor to even the numbers for their Christmas Eve dinner. Or, failing that, they might even have a senior servant sit at table with them in order to ensure there was an even number partaking of the Christmas Eve meal. Ladies’ companions and governesses were regularly pressed into service for this very purpose.
The light shed by the Yule Candle was believed to have special properties, conferring a powerful blessing upon anyone who was touched by its light. They would be protected against "witching" or any form of enchantment for the duration of the season. In most homes, beneath the Yule Candle was to be found the Yule-heap or pile, a stack of various cakes and loaves of different kinds of breads which were baked for the holiday season and which were believed to be kept fresh by the Yule Candle light. Many people also placed valuables such as money, fine clothes, particularly their holiday garments, and other precious possessions within the circle of light cast by the Yule Candle so that these objects would also be blessed and therefore protected from harm. The remains of the Yule Candle was also thought to have powerful protective properties. The candle stub and any spilled wax drippings were carefully collected once the candle had burned out and were stored in a safe place. This precious wax was believed to be a superior remedy for cuts and sores, chapped hands and cracked lips. Leftover Yule candle wax could also be used protect livestock and increase their yield. A cross marked in Yule wax on the backs of farm animals on Christmas morning would ensure their health and well-being. Wax rubbed on the udders of cows was believed to increase milk production. Wax crumbs mixed into the chicken feed would mean more eggs would be laid.
Into the 1890s, many people throughout Britain told ghost stories on Christmas Eve. No one would voluntarily set foot outside their home on that night, for fear of encountering "uncanny beings," including dancing trolls, or other darkly mystical creatures. This appears to be a throwback to the pagan idea that the dead were abroad on the winter solstice, when deceased family members were believed to return to the homes they had known in life. In many rural homes, people felt it was worth making the effort to provide a civil reception to these "visitors," as it would bring good luck. But they also took precautions to protect their livestock, including making a cross in Yule candle wax on the stable door and smearing the precious wax on their cows’ udders for good measure, to ward off any mischief-making by dark spirits.
The Yule Candle was also the custom in a number of Northern European countries during the Regency, and they subscribed to most of the superstitions which surrounded the Yule Candle in Britain. But in Norway and Denmark, two candles were used instead of one, one to represent the husband and the other the wife. It was believed that the spouse who’s candle burned out first would be the first to die. In Sweden, the leftover Yule wax was smeared on the blades of ploughs, in the belief it would increase the crop yield for the next season. Variations of these customs and superstitions were observed across the Continent. In Spain, Italy and other more temperate countries, the Yule Candle was less commonly used in private homes, though it was used for Christmas Eve services in nearly every church.
As we have seen, there were a host of customs and superstitions which were observed in Britain during the Regency with regard to the Yule Candle. They all have the potential to add some interesting wrinkles to the plot of a novel set during a Regency Christmas season. I am looking forward to reading a Regency in which a lady’s companion or a governess is required to take Christmas Eve dinner with the family to even out the numbers, mayhap because of the unexpected arrival of the handsome and dashing hero. Or perhaps the heroine uses a bit of the precious Yule Candle wax to heal the hero’s wound or restore his favorite horse to health. Who knows what a clever Regency author can do with a Yule Candle in her story? I think it is about time the Yule Candle received some attention, instead of its much larger rival, the Yule Log, hogging all the limelight. Equal time for the Yule Candle!
And a Merry Christmas to all!