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The Yule Log

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 Pok√©mon 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.

The Yule Log on HDTV. Truly we live in wondrous times.

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.)

My dad used to enjoy having The Yule Log on the tube, which drove us kids crazy (and no doubt added to his enjoyment of it). What can I say? In its way, it’s the pinnacle of television. Thanks to my buddy Matt for the tip.

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3 Comments

  1. William Hughes says:

    As counter-programming, MSG Network (home of the New York Knicks and New York Rangers for all of the non-New Yorkers) has offered their own Yule Log each of the past several years. As far as I’m concerned, the Yule Log is the ultimate filler programming, but it is also serves as a memory of times past.

  2. Ellen says:

    Just an aside – I finally experienced HGTV over the holiday, on a gi-noromous tv. Football, basketball, even just the sports report on ESPN – completely mesmerizing, mostly due to the purty colors. I’d be scared of how long I’d spend in front of an HD yule log.

  3. A while back This American Life aired a piece about a man who had the idea to create an all-puppy cable channel. (You can listen to it here; scroll down to episode 233.) He proposed to have nothing but puppies, 24/7, with soothing music in the background, much like the yule log. I think it’s a brilliant idea and would have a huge audience.

    The show goes into the obstacles to his success; it takes a lot of capital to create a national channel, even with cheap-to-produce content, and the revenue stream for a channel without ads comes solely from the cable companies themselves and is therefore pretty thin. What surprises me most is that he’d need the full regalia of satellite uplinks and bandwidth even for entirely non-time-sensitive and easily loopable content. Can’t the industry use alternative distribution methods, e.g. the net? Hell, for something like the Puppy Channel they could send tapes by parcel post! Maybe that’s a possibility and he just didn’t have the industry know-how to use nonstandard methods, or maybe the labor and support costs of doing so would exceed the satellite costs, dunno.

    I imagine that a shift to HDTV will make production and distribution costs skyrocket, at least in the buildout period and perhaps forever.