Lighting Up the Yule Log

To help get you in the holiday spirit in this most unusual, socially-distant year, here’s what you need to know about one of Columbia’s oldest traditions, the Yule Log  —  a tradition that goes back to the colonial days of King’s College.

What is the Yule Log ceremony?

Yule Log, 1989. Scan #0506. Historical Photograph Collection. University Archives.

The annual Yule Log ceremony, a Columbia tradition celebrating the holiday season, begins when the Yule Log arrives at the John Jay Hall fireplace ushered by students dressed in colonial costumes. The event also includes remarks from Columbia administrators, performances by student groups, and refreshments. 

How old is the Yule Log tradition at Columbia?

Yule Log, 1910. Scan #0505. Historical Photograph Collection, University Archives.

Although there are some references to such a celebration held at King’s College before the American Revolution, the tradition was (re)started by President Nicholas Murray Butler in 1910. The Yule Tide ceremony, as it was known, was held for the benefit of students unable to return home for the holidays. The celebration brought together undergraduate and graduate students living in the new dormitories on the Morningside Heights campus and it offered them a chance to meet President Butler in person. Trustees, alumni and the dormitory benefactors were invited to join in the celebration held on Christmas night. The first Yule Log Festival was held in Hartley Hall, but Wallach Hall (then called Livingston Hall) (1911) and Furnald Hall (1913) also played host to the event.

Is this a continuous tradition?

President Dwight D. Eisenhower lights up the Yule Log, 1949. Scan #2924. Historical Photograph Collection, University Archives.

Unfortunately, there have been some gaps over the years, most significantly when it was abandoned during the World War I years. The Yule Log reappeared briefly in the early 1920s, sponsored by the Comeback Club, a club for the University’s disabled ex-servicemen, but it was open only to Federal Board students, no longer to all dormitory residents. The ceremony returned for good in 1933. And unlike the first few years, the reintroduced event moved to the end of the fall semester so all students could participate, not just those unable to go home for the holidays.

Who carries the Yule Log?

President Grayson Kirk leads the Yule Log heralds across campus, 1950s. Scan #1004. Historical Photograph Collection, University Archives.

Originally, between four and six students would serve as Yule Log Heralds. They would dress up as colonial soldiers and, after a walk through campus, they would bring in the log to the fireplace. Over time, the costumes changed from the British red jackets to the more patriotic and true-to-Columbia blue. In 1977, for the first time, there were two female Yule Log bearers (two students from Barnard, part of the Blue Key Society). And only two years after women were first admitted to Columbia, in 1984, all four of the Yule Log bearers were women (3 Columbia and 1 Barnard). 

How has the tradition grown and evolved over the years?

Tree Lights, 2003. Photograph by Eileen Barroso. Office of Public Affairs Photographs, University Archives.
  • In the 1930s, the traditional lighting of the Yule Log was followed by a dance so popular that the Social Affairs Office could only distribute a limited number of tickets (for couples only).
  • In 1954, the ceremony grew to include one of Columbia’s contributions to Christmas literature: a reading of Clement Clark Moore’s (CC 1798) “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (more commonly known as “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas”). Classics Professor Moses Hadas’s readings were famously memorable and he was ably succeeded by History Professor Dwight C. Miner, who was also long remembered by students for ushering in the holiday season from 1964 to 1977. 
  • The 1970s saw the addition of a new participant in the lighting of the log: the University employee with the longest period of service in the residence halls. Ben Jerman, known as the “voice of Furnald Hall” because he served as the switchboard operator for over 20 years, lit the Yule Log for a number of years up to 1981, when he retired after 31 years of service.
  • While it has been sponsored over the years by various campus groups, since 1971, the Yule Log celebration has been administered by the Blue Key Society, the University’s oldest community service organization.
  • Since 1998, the Yule Log ceremony has occurred in conjunction with the annual Tree Lighting ceremony on College Walk. It may seem hard to believe but the tree lights on College Walk were started so recently and even in its second year, it’s yearly-status was still in question

What about this year?

Yule Log, 2016.

Unfortunately, due to limitations on in-person inside events, the Yule Log ceremony cannot take place as is traditionally done, but do know that the Tree Lights are ready to light up College Walk in December.