Yule Logs, Mincemeat, and Mince Pies: Food and History

Updated on November 29, 2017
AliciaC profile image

Linda Crampton is a teacher with an honors degree in biology. She enjoys exploring nutrition as well as the culture and history of food.

A Christmas display with mince pies in the foreground
A Christmas display with mince pies in the foreground | Source

The Yule Log Cake and Mincemeat: Christmas Traditions

For as long as I can remember, a Yule log cake and mince pies have been a traditional part of my family's Christmas. They are popular treats that have had a long and interesting history, although they've changed from their original form. A Yule log was originally a log of a tree instead of a log-shaped chocolate cake, and mince pies once contained meat instead of a mixture of fruit.

A Yule log cake, or bûche de Noël, is a chocolate sponge roll filled with chocolate or vanilla cream and covered with chocolate frosting. The cake is decorated to make it look like a log. Sometimes a white frosting is used so that the log looks as though it's covered in snow.

Mince pies are small pies or tarts consisting of a pastry shell filled with mincemeat. The mincemeat is traditionally made from raisins, currants, apples, lemon peel and zest, spices, brown sugar, suet, and rum or brandy. The pies may have a lid or may be open. Mince pies are a traditional Christmas treat in Britain and are popular in some other countries, too.

A Yule log cake or buche de Noel
A Yule log cake or buche de Noel | Source

Pagan History of the Yule Log

Many people think of the word "Yule" as an alternate and slightly old fashioned name for Christmas. Yule was actually the name of a winter solstice celebration enjoyed by pagans in Northern Europe before the introduction of Christianity. It celebrated the end of the shortest day of the year and the approach of longer, warmer days that would be accompanied by the reawakening of nature.

Yule was a festival involving feasting, fun, and hope. People brought a large log indoors during the celebration, placed it in a fireplace, and set it alight, often after sprinkling it with a libation. The goal was to keep the log burning for at least twelve hours and sometimes for as long as twelve days. The burning log may have been a symbol of the returning sun.

A small piece of the burned log was kept to light the next year's log. The burnt wood was believed to have magical properties that would protect the people from evil during the upcoming year and bring them good luck. The ashes produced from the log were also thought to have magical powers and were saved. They were often added to soil to improve the productivity of crops.

It was important that the Yule log was collected from the family's own land or from a neighbour's instead of being bought. Different cultures had different rules for the type of tree that would be suitable for supplying a log. Oak and ash seem to have been the most popular choices.

A Yule log for the winter solstice
A Yule log for the winter solstice | Source

A Christian Tradition

The custom of burning a Yule log spread through Europe and eventually became incorporated into Christian celebrations. In some areas, including France, a log was brought into a home on Christmas Eve and sprinkled with salt, oil, and wine. Prayers were said as the wood was set on fire. The log was supposed to burn for twelve hours. As in pagan celebrations, splinters were kept to light the next year's log. Cinders from the burnt wood were believed to protect the family from a visitation by the devil.

The custom of burning a log during a festival became less common as fireplaces decreased in size. The smaller fireplaces could no longer accommodate large logs that would stay alight for many hours or days. For some modern pagans and Christians a log is still a meaningful part of their December celebration, however. It's usually small enough to be placed on a table and is decorated with greenery and candles. It often has a spiritual or religious significance.

A Yule log cake with meringue mushrooms
A Yule log cake with meringue mushrooms | Source

A Yule Log as a Cake

For most people today, the term "Yule log" is synonymous with a cake. The substitution of a cake for a real log is thought to have begun in the nineteenth century. The cake is a sweet roulade. A roulade is made by rolling a flat layer of food around a filling. Savoury roulades are often made by spreading a cheese, egg or vegetable mixture on a piece of meat and then rolling the meat up. Sweet roulades are usually made from flat sponge cake covered with a sweet filling. A Swiss roll is a type of sweet roulade.

Some makers of Yule logs "cheat" when they create the cake. They draw the spiral pattern of the roulade in frosting at the end of a solid, log-shaped cake, as shown in the photo above. A traditional Yule log is made from a real roulade, however, as shown in the first cake photo and in the video below.

Christmas Chocolate Log and Sponge Cake Recipe

The Bûche de Noël

A bûche de Noël is covered with chocolate frosting so that it resembles a log. The baker generally creates ridges and circles in the frosting in order to produce a bark-like texture on the cake and the appearance of tree rings at its ends. He or she may also add a sprinkle of powdered sugar to give the impression of snow. (Powdered sugar is known as icing sugar in some countries.) Some logs contain a shorter roll of cake attached to the main roll at an angle so that it resembles a branch.

Holly leaves and berries made of marzipan may be added to the cake to provide Christmas colours. Christmas figures such as snowmen and Santa Claus may be placed on the top. In some countries, meringue mushrooms are traditionally placed around the log. Twigs of spruce are sometimes placed around the log as well as or instead of the mushrooms.

The cake and filling of a log are often chocolate-flavoured, but sometimes the cake or the cream are vanilla based and are light in colour. Jam may also be used as a filling, although a cream filling is more common.

The bûche de Noël is especially popular in France. It's traditionally served at the end of the réveillon or feast that's held after midnight mass on Christmas Eve.

How to Make Meringue Mushrooms

The interior of a mince pie showing the mincemeat
The interior of a mince pie showing the mincemeat | Source

History of Mince Pies

"Mince" refers to finely chopped meat and "mincemeat" is the filling for mince pies. There is no meat in today's mince pies, however.

The forerunner of the mince pie was the Christmas pie. This was originally a large, rectangular pie filled with different types of meat and spices. The earliest mentions of Christmas pies date from the time of the Crusaders and their introduction of exotic new spices to Britain. There are claims that the shape of the pies represented the manger of the baby Jesus. Some researchers doubt this story, though. The pies were said to have a "coffin" shape, which was a common term that simply meant a shape like a basket.

During the Tudor period the pies were sometimes known as shrid or shred pies and were very popular. They were made from meats such as beef, mutton, rabbit, and beef tongue as well as various birds.

Christmas pies containing only meat were available even in Victorian times, but by then pies containing meat and fruit were available as well. In the past, a mixture of savoury and sweet foods in one dish was more popular than it is today. Fruit was added to the Christmas pie mix at least as early as 1725, as shown by the Little Jack Horner nursery rhyme quoted below. A mincemeat recipe from 1788 (referenced below) shows that the mixture consisted mainly of fruit by that time, although it did contain tripe. Tripe is the lining of an animal's stomach. Most tripe comes from cows.

Little Jack Horner

Sat in a corner,

Eating a Christmas Pie;

He put in his thumb,

And pulled out a plum,

And said, "What a good boy am I!"

— Henry Carey, in the year 1725

Homemade Vegetarian Mincemeat Recipe

The Mince Pies of Today

Mince pies may have no lid, a star-shaped cover to represent the star that guided the Wise Men, or a full cover. I like the ones with no lids, since I prefer the taste of the mincemeat to the taste of the pastry. The pies vary in depth. Some are shallow. These are sometimes referred to as mince tarts. Others are deeper. The pies and tarts are very nice to eat on their own, but they are also delicious with ice cream.

Today the only remnant of meat in mince pies is the beef suet. This is sometimes replaced by butter or by vegetarian suet, which usually contains palm oil. It's possible to buy or make mince pies that don't contain any rum or brandy, if this is preferred.

Interestingly, modern recipes for large "Christmas Pies" containing all meat or meat and fruit are available today. It's therefore possible to enjoy these as people did in the past as well as enjoy the taste of mince pies.

Mince Pies Recipe

Interesting Traditions

Some interesting traditions are associated with making and eating mince pies.

  • When someone is making mincemeat at home, they should stir the mixture in a clockwise direction. Stirring in an anticlockwise direction is said to bring bad luck during the upcoming year.
  • Cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves must be added to represent the three gifts of the Wise Men to the baby Jesus.
  • One mince pie should be eaten on each of the twelve days of Christmas to ensure good luck. The last should be eaten on January 6th, or Epiphany.
  • A wish should be made as the first pie is eaten.
  • Refusing to eat a mince pie will lead to bad luck.

Family traditions related to food are often a wonderful part of Christmas. They can make an important and meaningful contribution to a very special time of year.

Mince pies covered with icing (powdered) sugar
Mince pies covered with icing (powdered) sugar | Source

References

A history of the Yule log from the history.com website

The Yule log from Christmas Traditions in France and in Canada

A mincemeat recipe from 1788 from The English Art of Cookery by Richard Briggs (via Google Books)

Mince pie history from the Historic Food website

Mince pies traditions from Project Britain

© 2013 Linda Crampton

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    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thanks, Carolyn! I find it very interesting to explore the original celebration of Yule. Tracing the development of our modern customs - when this can be done - is fascinating!

    • CarolynEmerick profile image

      Carolyn Emerick 3 years ago

      wish I had seen this before Yuletide! Not that I remotely bake, I won't even attempt it! But, I run some pages with large followings who are interested in Old Yule! Would have shared it! I will try to keep a better look out for your seasonal posts from now on :-)

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thanks, Dianna. I think that mince pies are delicious! I don't know how much longer they'll be on sale in my local stores. It's quite easy to make my own, though!

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 3 years ago

      It has been several years since I've enjoyed a yule log, maybe this year I will make one to enjoy. Thanks for the history on it. Also, I enjoyed reading about the mince pie traditions. Now, this is one I have not tasted but you make it sound really fun and delightful.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, Linda. Thank you very much for the comment. I agree, Yule logs are delicious! Unlike you, though, I love mince pies as well! Best wishes for 2014.

    • Minnetonka Twin profile image

      Linda Rogers 3 years ago from Minnesota

      What a fun and informative hub Alicia. My family has a yule log cake every Christmas Eve. It's become a fun tradition and the cakes are so tasty. I have never cared for mince meat pie. I think it's a taste you have to grow up with or you may not care for it. Happy New Year!

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you, carole. It's fun to investigate food traditions. The recipes in the videos are interesting!

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      carole 3 years ago

      love your recipes,and the stories behind them, you can't beat an old family recipe

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thanks for the comment and for sharing the interesting story about mincemeat pie, Deb!

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 3 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      Back in Maine, the old timers DID make the mince pie with deer meat, and it was called mincemeat pie. Those really are the best! Great article reminded me of days gone by. Good work, Alicia!

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, drbj. Yes, a Yule log cake is a delicious tradition! I hope you have a very happy Christmas.

    • drbj profile image

      drbj and sherry 3 years ago from south Florida

      Hi, Alicia, I'm so glad that the tradition of the Yule log has been translated to a delicious chocolate treat. So much more tasty than the original. :)

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thanks, Pamela. I appreciate your visit.

    • Pamela99 profile image

      Pamela Oglesby 3 years ago from United States

      Some members of my family really like mincemeat and make pies at the holidays. The history you wrote was really interesting.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      That's such a funny story, Martie! It would be a shock for someone expecting a small pie with a sweet, fruity taste to get a meat pie instead. Thank you for the comment. I hope you have a very happy Christmas.

    • MartieCoetser profile image

      Martie Coetser 3 years ago from South Africa

      Wow! Love the history. In South Africa mince pies are still pies filled with minced beef. A visitor of England could not believe his eyes when I served this instead of minced-fruit pies - after he had mentioned that he would love to have a mince pie.

      Lol!

      Pies filled with minced fruit are rare down here. We have fruit cake, fruit puddings, fruit salads and tons of fresh fruit.

      Interesting! Thanks, Alicia :)

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, Prasetio. Thank you very much for the visit, the comment and the vote! If you ever try mince pies and a Yule log, I hope you enjoy them.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, Cynthia. Thanks for the comment! I hope that you have a great Christmas and that 2014 is a joyful and successful year for you.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, WiccanSage. I love traditional foods during the holidays, too. Good luck if you decide to make a Yule log!

    • prasetio30 profile image

      prasetio30 3 years ago from malang-indonesia

      Wow...it sound delicious, Alicia. I love the history of Yule log cake and mince pies. I had never heard about this cake before. Thanks for sharing with us. Voted up :-)

      Prasetio

    • CMHypno profile image

      CMHypno 3 years ago from Other Side of the Sun

      All those pictures of cake and mince pies has made my mouth water! Interesting hub and thanks for the great information on our favourite Christmas treats. Hope you have a very Happy Christmas and a fabulous 2014

    • WiccanSage profile image

      Mackenzie Sage Wright 3 years ago

      First... you are making me very hungry. Second, this is an awesome little tidbit to know, I really love holiday entertaining and parties and traditional foods and it's nice to know more about them. I really must think about baking a yule log this year.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you very much for the comment, the vote and the shares, KDeus! I appreciate them all. Merry Christmas to you, too. I hope you have an enjoyable holiday!

    • KDeus profile image

      Keely Deuschle 3 years ago from Florida

      A very interesting hub! I have never tried a Yule Log nor Mincemeat, either. I will definitely pin this to try sometime! Voted up, shared, and pinned! Merry Christmas!

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, phdast7. Thank you very much for the visit! I appreciate your comment. Merry Christmas to you, too!

    • phdast7 profile image

      Theresa Ast 4 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      What a fascinating and thorough hub. History,and how to make them. Wonderful pictures.. Mincemeat is one of my favorites and I don't think I have ever tried a Yule Log. Maybe this year. :) Merry Christmas !

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, DzyMsLizzy. I agree with you - the pie crust is simply a box for the yummy part of the pie! I haven't tried eating mincemeat right out of a jar because I know I'd find it hard to stop! I like the sound of your mini-tarts. I do make mince pies sometimes instead of buying them, but I always buy my Yule log. It does look time consuming and a bit tricky to make! Thank you very much for the votes and the shares.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, Nell. I don't stop at one mince pie a day, either - and I've already had some this December as well! Thank you very much for the vote and the share - I appreciate them both.

    • DzyMsLizzy profile image

      Liz Elias 4 years ago from Oakley, CA

      Very nicely done, with clear explanations and history. I've read the recipe for Yule logs, and I'm scared to try it. Somehow, I think I'll wind up with a plateful of crumbs by the time I flop it out of the pan, roll it to cool; unroll to fill and re-roll to finish!

      I love mince pie; my husband hates it, so I don't make it. However, I just had an epiphany of my own: I was just gifted a pasta maker complete with ravioli rollers. It occurred to me that I could make mince "ravioli" mini-tarts, brush with butter, sprinkle with sugar and bake them, instead of boiling. These could easily be frozen...

      The jar of mince"meat" my daughter just gave me contains no lard or suet, so as a vegetarian, that's perfect for me! She likes to just eat it plain; neither of us is a fan of pie crust. For us, it's just a "box" to hold the good part of the dessert. LOL

      Voted up, useful, interesting, shared and pinned.

    • Nell Rose profile image

      Nell Rose 4 years ago from England

      That was fascinating Alicia, I sort of knew about the Yule log but not that much, and as for eating mince pies one a day...um....lol! I have already eaten at least 10! voted up and shared! nell

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, Bill. Thanks for the visit and the comment. I hope you have a very happy holiday, too!

    • bdegiulio profile image

      Bill De Giulio 4 years ago from Massachusetts

      How interesting Linda. You know I don't think I've never had mincemeat either. I must be living under a rock :) It all sounds and looks yummy. Interesting history. Happy Holidays.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, WriterJanis. I think that the history of food can be very interesting! Thanks for the visit.

    • WriterJanis profile image

      Janis 4 years ago from California

      I never knew that Yule logs were actual logs used. I've only known of them as a yummy dessert.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you very much, Faith. It's nice to hear of another mincemeat fan! As always, I appreciate the votes and the share. Blessings to you, too!

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, Crafty. It's interesting to hear that you like the smell of mincemeat but not the taste. Mincemeat cookies sound delicious to me! Thank you for the comment.

    • AliciaC profile image
      Author

      Linda Crampton 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, Bill. Thanks for the visit. Since I have a British background, I've eaten mince pies and mincemeat since childhood. They're both readily available in the stores here in Canada, too, which makes me happy!

    • Faith Reaper profile image

      Faith Reaper 4 years ago from southern USA

      Awesome Alicia! I love mince meat pie. My mom would always make it. Fascinating history here...how interesting for sure. Love all the photos and videos. Now, I am so hungry! Excellent hub. Up and more and sharing. Blessings, Faith Reaper

    • CraftytotheCore profile image

      CraftytotheCore 4 years ago

      This is such a beautiful Hub! My great-grandmother was from England. When I was about 3 or so, she passed away. But I certainly remember the smell in her home. It was such a sweet and rewarding smell to my senses. Just last year, I finally received a copy of her cookie recipes. My favorite one is a mincemeat cookie. I don't really care too much for the flavor of it. But it smells so good. I seriously want to make it in to a candle scent.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 4 years ago from Olympia, WA

      You know, I have never had mincemeat. Thank you for the history and information, Alicia. Very interesting.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you for the comment, DDE. Mince pies are one of my favourite Christmas foods, too!

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 4 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      Yule Logs, Mince Pies and Mincemeat - Facts and History is an interesting and informative hub. Mince Pies have been my favorite for ages and now I know more about the facts and history.