Normally this space is taken up every holiday by me cynically urging readers to ignore their aggravating relatives and retreat to the comforting familiarity of their living room couches to binge on movie marathons, Christmas specials, sporting events and other easily digestible seasonal programming. But this year we’re going to do something a little different (at least until next week when we’ll talk snarkily about New Year’s Eve specials). This Christmas we’re gonna use the power of television to bring people together—united under the room-temperature glow of the digitized Yule Log.
Once upon a time, the Yule Log was an actual, physical thing. The Yule Log was a giant block of wood, specially selected to burn for the Twelve Days of Christmas. (Fireplaces were evidently huge in pre-Victorian England.) The tradition traces all the way back to early Germanic paganism in which giant bonfires (and the occasional Roman legion) were immolated on Midwinter. The televised Yule Log was invented in 1966 by Fred Thrower, President and CEO of WPIX in New York City, who worried about the holiday cheer levels among fireplace-deficient, apartment-dwelling New Yorkers. He sent a camera crew down to Gracie Mansion, the official residence of the mayor of New York, to shoot some high-class fireplace action. Years later, when the footage started to wear out, WPIX went back to Gracie Mansion. Unfortunately, the last camera crew had removed a fireplace grate to get a better shot of the flames and some stray sparks caused $4,000 damage to a nearby antique rug. The new governor told WPIX to take a hike. Nonetheless, the annual tradition took off. Nowadays, the Yule Log lives on as the odd Christmas Eve/Christmas Day TV feed and the occasional cheap Hallmark store DVD.
This year, for example, Hallmark Movie Channel will air “A Happy Yule Log” starting 3pm on Sunday, Dec. 24. At 4am on Monday, Dec. 25, Animal Planet will light up its “Super Cute Yule Log” in which “puppies, kittens and baby goats frolic on a holiday set to seasonal tunes.” Starz offers “Outlander: Yule Log” starting at 8:42am on Dec. 25. It features a traditional Scottish hearth, a couple of lazy hunting dogs and some fiddle music—but sadly no actual cast members of “Outlander” rolling around naked on the rug. A more contemporary virtual fireplace awaits you on Dish Network’s Channel 198, 24 hours a day through the beginning of January. If you’re a Comcast subscriber, the Yule Log is available On Demand (and in HD) under the Top Picks/Yule Log & More category. On the streaming service Netflix, you can choose Season 1 of “Fireplace For Your Home” (three episodes, no less), “Fireplace For Your Home: Birchwood Edition” (in stunning 4K) or “Fireplace and Melodies for the Holidays” (pretty self-explanatory, that one). High-tech Apple TV users can go to iTunes for digital Yule Log apps. Magic Fireplace ($.0.99) is allegedly the best, giving you 14 different fireplaces to choose from and a nifty slo-mo mode.
So, instead of staring blankly at the 70th annual airing of It’s Wonderful Life, why not hunt down a good, old-fashioned Yule Log video? Fire it up as background on your TV screen, pass around some hot cocoa and do something radical like actually interact with your family this Christmas.