Gather ’round, children, and I will tell you a holiday story, the story of the WPIX Yule Log. The yule log, the ceremonial incineration of a whole tree, has been a Christmas tradition for centuries. But television’s Yule Log, a loop of blazing fireplace flickering to a soundtrack of the Boston Pops, Nat King Cole, and Percy Faith, was invented in New York City in 1966.
The yule log you’ll see in YouTube clips and glowing in the background of The Colbert Report studio was the brainchild of WPIX Channel 11 president and CEO Fred Thrower, who conceived of the three-hour loop of 17 seconds of footage as a kind of Christmas card to viewers huddled in their tiny New York City apartments without a fireplace of their own.
From 1966 until 1989, WPIX would interrupt its regularly scheduled programming on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, “to bring you the warmth, good cheer and friendliness of a yule log fire accompanied by the most beautiful and familiar christmas carols.”
As Thrower told viewers in a monologue that accompanied the broadcast, the Yule Log is “our Christmas greeting to all of you, our viewers and listeners, our way of wishing you and yours a very Merry Christmas.”
The original 16mm footage was shot at Gracie Mansion in 1966, back when the mayoral home was occupied by John Lindsay (regarded by some historians as the city’s worst mayor). According to Chip Arcuri, proprietor of the fan site TheYuleLog.com, “When WPIX shot the original Gracie Mansion footage, to capture the conflagration in all its flaming glory, the crew decided to remove the protective screen and a stray spark damaged a valuable antique rug.”
That turned out to be a problem when the original 16mm film began to deteriorate, and the mayor’s office declined to allow WPIX to re-shoot the film on location. The footage that exists today was shot on 35mm at a California home with a similar fireplace in 1970, 19 years before the log was put into retirement in 1989.
A devoted fan base materialized in the log’s absence — a tribe of people who hang around online forums to debate the authenticity of YouTube clips claiming to be the original 1966 film version (“[F]raud! What I remember most of the original 1966 ‘log’ was that the brick behind the flame was darker than the one we’re seeing now, and there was a smaller log on the bottom that was diagonal”) and discuss Yule Log broadcast schedules for different television markets.
Snicker if you want, but diehard fans like those are the ones credited with convincing WPIX to rekindle the flame. The program was restored to airwaves in 2001, following an online petition to “Bring Back the Log.”
These days, the log has its own Twitter handle (@PIXYULELOG) and Facebook page; fans can buy branded merchandise (boxers that say “Nice Log!” or dog shirts and trucker hats emblazoned with a stylized WPIX logo).
The “fabled fire stick” will be broadcast in HD on WPIX from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Christmas morning. (It will be streamed on PIX11.com, too, from 6 to 10 p.m. on Christmas Eve, and from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 7 to 10 p.m. on Christmas Day.)
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on December 23, 2013