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The Peace of the Gods which our Aryan forbears knew descended at Yuletide hovers near always as we watch the Yule log, whether in the keen air under the stars, or in the tapestried shelter about the carefully fended hearth. Man loves warmth, but he worships flame, as he always has since he first saw it fall from heaven, though few of us now make our prayer to it. Its flicker in the night will draw us far; nor are we alone in this, for all the wild things of the wood come as well and toss back its flare from eyes wide with wonder. As they stand at gaze before it, unwinking, so do we, letting its wordless message touch the primal fonts of peace. Around the camp-fire, whether without or within, all men are brothers and the breaking of bread and the tasting of salt are but the more formal symbols of fellowship. Man has made God in many images besides his own, but none has found a finer symbolism than the ancient Persians, who saw in flame the most ethereal expression of beneficence and purity. The race has grown older now and we strive to outgrow what we call childish things, yet we get new strength for dwelling in our higher levels of mature thought by dropping back now and then to the primitive customs and touching with smiling reverence the ancient forms of expression. Here in America is the smelting pot of nations and we are uniting once more in one race the scattered children of the Aryan stack. Each child brings as play what was once worship -- Saxon, Celtic, Greek or Latin, all uniting again in the Christmas celebration and each bringing his fagot for the lighting of the Yule log, which burns on Christmas Eve.
Nor does it matter to us now from what tree that log is cut, though once it did. The ancient Aryans who were forefathers of us all lived very near to nature and all their thought was built upon her moods. Our Christmas tree with its lighted candles and its glow of tinsel ornaments is but a tiny image of their sun tree, which began to grow with the first lengthening of the days. They imaged in this dawning light a pillar of fire like a tree trunk that grew and spread over the heavens, bringing through spring all the beneficient gifts of summer. The rays were twigs, the glowing clouds foliage, and the sun, moon and stars golden fruit that hung from these celestial branches. Out of this as the race grew came also many another romantic symbolism of cherished belief. Among the glowing sunset clouds was hung the golden fleece of the Cholchis. The golden apples of the Hesperides grew there. The very lightning flash was but a celestial mistletoe growing mysteriously upon the limbs of this flame tree as it grows on the oaks in the forests beneath which they hunted. Secure in our better beliefs, we call their worship superstition, but it is well that they had it. It was the groping expression of imagination without which we are no better than the beasts and would never find the really spiritual for which we still seek.
The most perfect descendant of this sun tree was the world-ash of the Scandinavian mythology, the "Yggsdrasil" of the Edda, in which it is described, with the many mystic rites which grew up about its worship. Hence in Western Europe the proper Yule log was the trunk of an ash tree bound with as many green hazel withes as possible, the hazel being also a sacred tree with these people. As late as thirty years ago, and I doubt not still, the Yule log was thus put to burn on Christmas Eve in many an English fireplace. There some part of it was to be kept smouldering, however low the fire might get, and the blaze of the next day was to be relighted from it for the twelve days of Christmas. Moreover, from a portion of this log should be relighted the Yule fire of the next year, that its magic might be perpetual and thus all evil spirits be warded from the house. Not a bad superstition this, the brand standing as a constant reminder of the spirit of peace and good will lighted in the Christmas fire, not to be forgotten till it is kindled anew by the relighting of the blaze on the hearth a year hence. Here in New England we come, little by little, back to these kindly old customs that mean so much when the outward observance is informed with the thought which it represents. The old fireplaces which were once ignominiously built up with bricks to give free draft to the air-tight stove in its hollow materialism are being reopened, and in them again we light our Yule fires. Nor is the spirit banished with the season. The blaze from the burning log on the open hearth is the kindliest welcome that a room can give to him who enters it. In it the rough rind of our puritanism burns away and the glow within shines forth as we sit about this primal altar of our race, fire-worshipping.
It was the olden custom for host and guests to watch the first burning of this ashen fagot, and as the hazel withes one by one burned away the severing of the bond was the signal for the passing of the flagon, the loosing of the genial hospitality pent within the breasts of all and set free with the flames. Perhaps many who took part in these rollicking ceremonials thought they cared merely for the cakes and ale, but even they were self deceived. It was the genial freeing of the spirit of Christmas good-will to all, the fellowship that touched deepest, though they may not have formulated the fact even in their thoughts. No wonder that the children, whose clear sight is unblurred by too much learning of things which are not so, knew that to this fond fire on Christmas eve must come that patron saint of gifts, Santa Claus, even though, the house being locked, he must climb down the wide chimney to reach it. We have forgotten the shoe, which in the folk tales of our earliest forbears of the North European forests was the symbol of mutually helpful deeds of love. The children of these days placed it by the Yule fire, that Santa Claus might load it with gifts. Nowadays we hang the stocking in its stead, perhaps because it holds more.
I do not take it kindly of old Ben Franklin that he, almost an hundred years ago, with his Poor Richard wisdom taught us to economize our fuel by shutting up our fire in stoves, for what we gained in the flesh we lost in the spirit, and it is good that in the modern house, however mechanically complicated the heating apparatus, we build fireplaces once again that our souls may be warmed with the sight of the flame. The impulse to worship fire still lingers within us and though we have better creeds than that of Zoroaster and truer spiritual ideals than the Parsees we can have no more appealing symbol of the purely spiritual than flame. Phlogiston might well be another word for soul and we are unkind to the old philosophers to take them too literally. The alchemists were dreamers rather than doers after all, and though it is the fashion to laud the doers it is often the dreamers that see most clearly. As the flame leapt upward from the burning wood they saw in it a rare, pure, ethereal substance which they called Phlogiston.
Nor did they yield their theory when Lavoisier claimed to disprove it by burning phosphorus in oxygen and weighing the result, which was heavier than the phosphorus had been. Thereupon the world derided the alchemists and lauded Lavoisier whose experiments laid the foundation for the intricate science of modern chemistry. For all that, science gives us the truth only from one angle and the science of one age is often disproved by the science of the next. Modern chemists may agree on what happens when phosphorus burns, but many a theory of Lavoisier's day has been disproved in its turn. A thousand scientists have declared flying impossible to man, yet today men fly. Lavoisier was right, no doubt. Combustion is the combination of an element with oxygen. He proved that with his chemist's balance. Yet how did he prove that some imponderable element does not leap from wood in flame? As well say that when a man dies the spirit has not left the body because he weighs the same. Watching the falling embers of the Yule log leap into flames before they turn gray, I am apt to think that the intuition of the alchemists touched a truth that the chemical apparatus missed. You cannot measure its reaction on the mind of man or weigh the results, but they are there.
Wood was the sole fuel of the New England pioneers for two centuries. In fact in many a remote farmhouse it is today, and the fathers soon found by use which kind lighted quickest and which burned longest and with the most steady heat, facts which the subtle analysis of the chemists only confirmed. The conifers light most readily and burn rapidly with the greatest heat in a given time. The hard woods burn longest, some of them retaining fire for a surprising length of time under just the right conditions. The woodsmen will tell you that the pines light easily and burn fiercely because of the pitch they contain. This is true but the chemists have added another reason. Pine gives off much hydrogen when heated and this light and inflammable gas gives much flame. Even in pine wood which does not seem resinous to the touch there is much of this volatile inflammable material and a good store of pine kindlings is a first requisite in every well ordered country household. Of the hard woods hickory is easily king as a fire holder. Yet the oaks, white and red, and the sugar and black maples are not far behind in value. Our American white ash and elm rank well up with the oaks, so does beech, while the softer woods fall behind. Moreover, trees grown on high, droughty, barren soil show greater heating power than those of the same variety which happen to stand in rich, but moister soil.
Long ago an American chemist confirmed what the practical experience of the woodman had already decided. Marcus Bull's table of the heating value of American woods is as follows: Shagbark hickory, 100; white oak, 81; red oak, 68; sugar maple, 60; red maple, 54; white ash, 77; chestnut, 52; white beech, 65; black birch, 63; white birch, 48; pitch pine, 43; white pine, 42.
Wood, according to the chemists, is a carbohydrate and the greater the proportion of carbon which it contains the greater is its heat-giving value, the greater the proportion of hydrogen the greater the output of ruddy flames. Yet chemists, who are so sure the alchemists had no ground for their beliefs, do not always agree among themselves. Professor Bull's table of the heat-giving properties of the various woods has been declared inaccurate by other chemists, in spite of the fact that experience in actual use bears it out in many particulars. Again, either the chemists of Europe are at variance with ours or else their trees are, for Gottlieb's table of the heat-giving properties of European trees of similar varieties turns ours upside down. Gottlieb's table of calorics puts oak at the bottom of the list and pine at the top. It is as follows: Oak, 46.20; ash, 47.11; elm, 47.28; beech, 47.74; birch, 47.71; fir, 50-35; pine, 50.85.
There is a certain interest in all this, but to him who lights the Yule log on Christmas Eve it probably matters little. He knows that pine will kindle his fire readily and that one of the hard woods will hold it longest. He knows that out of the leaping flames, whether they be composed of phlogiston or incandescent hydrogen, loved fancies flashed into the minds of the elder race, born of the flicker of flame on the imagination of a primitive people, backed by dark forests, night and wind-riding storms. If he have the hardihood let him light his Yule log in the winter twilight of the snowy woods. He will do well to pick a spot where a dense growth of pines shelters him from the wind and a steep ledge makes for him fireplace and chimney at once. Then it does not matter if the snow is deep on the ground and the air filled with flying flakes; his hearth may soon glow with comfort. Even from a materialistic point of view the ancients did well to worship fire. Out of it was to come more or less directly all the material progress of the race toward civilization.
The pines, whose presence in the woods is always a benediction, stand ready with the best fire kindlings in the world. Their twigs light at the flare of a match. The larger limbs will fire from these and send flames leaping high. On a fire well started thus between backlog and forestick he may pile such dry, hard wood as he has at hand. The forest will give him plenty if he is on friendly terms with it. The forest will give him more, too. Out of its mysterious darkness will slip easily into his mind the old-time loved and half-forgotten legends that grew out of the winter night in the twilight of the early days of the Aryan race. At the time of the winter solstice it was the custom of the gods to leave their dwellings in heaven and come down to earth. In the shout of the wind in the pines he may well hear Wotan riding overhead in his gray cloak and broad-brimmed hat pressed low over his face.
He may glimpse his white steed whirling by and see plainly in the upflaring light of his fire the army of white souls that scurries behind the winter-god as he rides on his way. Black eagles fly with him and the wolves of the air gallop on before. The world-ash was a gigantic evergreen in whose branches were the abodes of giants and dwarfs as well as men and gods. Screened by night within the forest this tree may well be near with the springs of being and non-being within its roots and the Nornen sitting by, silent and grave. He may catch the gleam of the eyes of Loki as the firelight glints on the frost crystals among the snow-laden branches. Thus easily does a thousand years of civilization slip from us when face to face with night and the forest.
Yet if night and the winter ghosts of old ride just beyond the circle of his firelight, within it he is in the magic ring of comfort and safety. Around the Yule logs of centuries the race has warmed its heart as well as its hands, its soul as well as its body, and the old gods of terror have become the saints of good will. Out of the winter night Wotan steps into the light of the Yule fire, transformed into St. Nicholas, the very spirit of genial generosity. If we will go from our forest vigil to the hearth in any home we will find the world-ash, no longer weird and awesome with the fates sitting silent at its foot, but transformed into the very symbol of light and happiness and cheer, the Christmas tree. In the light of twenty centuries around the Yule log we have forgotten to be afraid and have made out of our weird dreams friendly fancies. Where once the fearsome dragon twined about the sun-tree we simulate his folds with strings of pop-corn. The unquenchable lights that flamed upon its twigs are now twinkling candles. The sun, moon and stars that once were the symbolic fruit grow again in tinsel ornament and, where we follow the legend closely, Eikthyner the stag, Heidrun the goat, Freyer's boar and Wotan's ravens and wolves, are hung in tiny effigy as confectioner's sweets. Thus with the Christmas tree alight and with the Yule log on the hearth we symbolize the old worship of the sun-tree and of fire through which we have grown to the better faith of which Christmas is one great commemorative festival.