With red and green capes flying, hundreds of children and adults dash into the snowy woods near Palmer Lake, Colo. (pop. 2,179), scrambling up and down slippery slopes and laughing as they search beneath evergreen boughs and bushes for the town’s hidden yule log.
Within 15 minutes, whoops and shouts of “over here” rise from a ravine where three boys stand victoriously over the treasure—an 8-foot-long pine log that has been notched and tied with a red ribbon.
“They’d covered up the ribbon with twigs and stuff,” says John Clewe, 14. “I was about to turn away, but saw footprints in the snow.”
Amid cheers and high-fives, Clewe and his hunting companions, Collin Rue, 14, and Owen Braley, 11, all from nearby Monument (pop. 1,971), straddle the yule log for their victory ride into town. Other members of the hunting party attach two long ropes to the log and drag it a quarter-mile back to Town Hall, stopping frequently so other riders can hop aboard.
The December tradition is cherished in Palmer Lake, where the same two-man saw that cut the town’s first yule log in 1933 is used today. Hunters saw the log in two and save half to start the following year’s ceremonial fire.
The other half is carried into Town Hall and set ablaze in the stone fireplace built by Palmer Lake’s volunteer firemen in 1936 strictly for the annual celebration.
“We’ve had blizzards and 20 below, and some years we’ve had to build bonfires outside,” says resident Rodger Voelker, “but it’s never canceled.”
For 40 of those celebrations, Voelker, 68, has stood in the Town Hall kitchen, stirring a large vat of wassail—hot spicy cider with bits of orange, lemon and baked apple—with a wooden paddle. The warm drink is served first to the person or persons who find the yule log, then to the townspeople and visitors, who toast one another and wish each other good health.
A tradition originating in ancient Europe, the yule log ceremony began in Palmer Lake after resident Lucretia Vaile attended a yule log hunt in Lake Placid, N.Y. (pop. 2,638). Vaile brought a splinter from that town’s yule log to start the celebration in Palmer Lake, where participants parade across the wooden plank stage at Town Hall at the start of the event while onlookers sing Christmas carols and wish them a merry and successful hunt.
Those who stay behind visit with their neighbors, enjoy musical entertainment and listen to the Christmas story read from the Bible.
“It’s part of the community, part of living here,” says Gary Atkins, 55. “People invite their family and friends and enjoy walking in the woods.”
A week before the yule log hunt, residents gather for a potluck dinner and make souvenir lapel pins from willow twigs, ribbon and pine boughs, and stamp them with the year. Many people use them for Christmas tree decorations.
“We’ve had people come up and say, ‘I haven’t been here in 30 years, but nothing has changed,’” says Patricia Atkins, 57, who emcees the yule log ceremony.
The festival is in good hands for another generation, too. Kurt Voelker, 30, president of the Yule Log Committee, has photographs of himself as a young boy helping his dad stir the wassail. Now his two daughters, Kyah, 6, and Ayla, 4, carry the silver wassail cup and ladle that has been used since the town’s original ceremony in 1933.
Likewise, Heather Krueger, 31, has attended every celebration since she was born. “I’ve sung, hunted, carried the wassail pitcher and found the log,” Krueger says. “It makes you feel like it’s Christmas.”