If you have to ask why The Yule Log is an institution in New York City every Christmas, you'll never understand.
The Christmas morning yule log special on WPIX - a four-hour tape of a log blazing brightly in a fireplace - is not for the fainthearted. The unextinguishable electronic hearth is a beloved New York tradition, but it would be a stretch to call it soothing. Even with Nat King Cole and Bing Crosby crooning carols on the audio track, the pulsing flames mesmerize, but less like a snifter of brandy than like a double dose of methamphetamine.
In fact, staring at the yule log for an extended period may induce the kind of seizures that in December 1997 struck hundreds of Japanese children who watched a Pokémon cartoon with too many flashing lights and Pikachu. This year the yule log will also be shown in high-definition television on WPIX's digital channel, WPIX-DT (channel 12). The HDTV version provides "a very sharp image of flames," said Ted Faraone, a WPIX spokesman. Parental discretion advised.
Memory can be misleading, of course. Apparently, the fire has always burned fast and furiously. Mr. Faraone said the yule log had not been speeded up or tampered with when it was digitally remastered in 2001, the year WPIX brought it back after a 12-year hiatus. He insisted that the tape was the same one that was made in 1970, a loop that runs just under seven minutes.
The original, first shown in 1966, was a black-and-white 17-second loop that was filmed at Gracie Mansion when John Lindsay was mayor. That clip, though, was too short and needed to be redone. But after a film crew accidentally set fire to an Oriental rug by removing the safety grate for an unobstructed view of the flames, the station was not invited back for a reshoot. Eventually, a television studio with a working fireplace was found in California, and the station created the image that has allowed a generation of apartment-bound New Yorkers to re-enact "Christmas in Connecticut." (Or "Fahrenheit 451.")
For some, the yule log is an easy, pleasantly cheesy backdrop to tree trimming and gift-wrapping. But it is also a Dadaist joke: television as the hearth, not just metaphorically but literally.
Whatever the reasons, there is no question that the yule log is cherished by viewers. When WPIX decided to stop showing it in 1989, the station was flooded with complaints and a grass-roots lobbying campaign sprang up to bring it back. Ersatz and, at some level, deeply pathetic, the television yule log became one of those mourned New York landmarks that make up the city's shared nostalgia, like the Automat and Ebbets Field. (And someday, no doubt, the Naked Cowboy in Times Square.)