The Luminous Story Behind TV's Yule Log

iStock
iStock

The Yule Log, a looped video of a wood-burning fireplace set to classic Christmas songs, has been a holiday staple for more than 50 years. But in a TV landscape dominated by angry pundits and Real Housewives, how did the sleepy footage become such cherished Christmastime viewing? 

In 1966, Fred Thrower, the manager of WPIX-TV Channel 11 in New York City, wanted the station to do “something a little different and special” that Christmas Eve. On November 2, he circulated a memo to his station’s staff, proposing that the station cancel all programs and commercials in order to air a WPIX Christmas Card, consisting of a video loop of a holiday-inspired fireplace. Thrower also suggested asking WPIX’s affiliated radio station, WPIX-FM, to provide an accompanying festive soundtrack.

Thrower’s concept came to life on December 24, 1966, when WPIX first aired three hours of a continuous 17-second film loop of an ornate fireplace. WPIX had filmed the fireplace at Gracie Mansion, the home of New York City’s mayor, and paired the film loop with Christmas hits from singers like Percy Faith and Nat King Cole. The Yule Log was a huge ratings success, and turning viewers’ TVs into makeshift fireplaces also turned out to be a win-win: New Yorkers in apartments without fireplaces could feel cozy and warm, and more WPIX employees could spend Christmas at home with their families instead of working at the station.

A few years later, in 1970, realizing the original 16mm film of the Gracie Mansion fireplace was deteriorating, WPIX filmed a similar-looking fireplace in Palo Alto, California. Shot on 35mm film, the new video was seven minutes long, making the fireplace loop footage less jerky than the original. For the next two decades, WPIX aired the Yule Log every Christmas—and won its time slot year after year.

Fred’s son, Mitch Thrower, told Mental Floss that his dad “was the most creative man I have ever known.” Explaining the log's appeal, Mitch says the program came to have “sentimental value for millions of people … The Yule Log allowed us all to gather around the same fireplace, and listen to the same music. There has always been something uniquely comforting in that shared moment.”

FANNING THE FLAMES

In 1990, the Yule Log's fire finally went out after network executives deemed the commercial-free program too expensive to air. But folks who grew up beside the log's glow just couldn't let go. Fast-forward a decade, and fans of the Yule Log created an online petition, appropriately titled “Bring Back The Log.” In December 2001, nostalgia won out, and WPIX resumed airing the Yule Log. Since 2003, WPIX’s parent company, Tribune Broadcasting, has aired the show not just in New York City, but on stations across the country.

In 2009, the Yule Log expanded from a three-hour program to four hours, after Lawrence “Chip” Arcuri produced a new fourth hour of classic Christmas music for the WPIX show.

Over the years, the Yule Log has taken on a life all its own. Besides ambient fireplace copycat videos on YouTube, Netflix, and iOS/Android apps, the Yule Log now has a strong social media presence. Whatever device you watch your Yule Log on, the flames are an annual opportunity to pause and reflect, to be together with family, and to feel the (figurative) warmth of the holiday season.

Keep Your Cat Busy With a Board Game That Doubles as a Scratch Pad

Cheerble
Cheerble

No matter how much you love playing with your cat, waving a feather toy in front of its face can get monotonous after a while (for the both of you). To shake up playtime, the Cheerble three-in-one board game looks to provide your feline housemate with hours of hands-free entertainment.

Cheerble's board game, which is currently raising money on Kickstarter, is designed to keep even the most restless cats stimulated. The first component of the game is the electronic Cheerble ball, which rolls on its own when your cat touches it with their paw or nose—no remote control required. And on days when your cat is especially energetic, you can adjust the ball's settings to roll and bounce in a way that matches their stamina.

Cheerable cat toy on Kickstarter.
Cheerble

The Cheerble balls are meant to pair with the Cheerble game board, which consists of a box that has plenty of room for balls to roll around. The board is also covered on one side with a platform that has holes big enough for your cat to fit their paws through, so they can hunt the balls like a game of Whack-a-Mole. And if your cat ever loses interest in chasing the ball, the board also includes a built-in scratch pad and fluffy wand toy to slap around. A simplified version of the board game includes the scratch pad without the wand or hole maze, so you can tailor your purchase for your cat's interests.

Cheerble cat board game.
Cheerble

Since launching its campaign on Kickstarter on April 23, Cheerble has raised over $128,000, already blowing past its initial goal of $6416. You can back the Kickstarter today to claim a Cheerble product, with $32 getting you a ball and $58 getting you the board game. You can make your pledge here, with shipping estimated for July 2020.

At Mental Floss, we only write about the products we love and want to share with our readers, so all products are chosen independently by our editors. Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a percentage of any sale made from the links on this page. Prices and availability are accurate as of the time of publication.

HBO Max: Everything You Need to Know About the New Streaming Service

What will you binge-watch first?
What will you binge-watch first?
WarnerMedia

This week, WarnerMedia launched HBO Max, the long-awaited streaming platform that the company hopes can compete with the likes of Netflix and Disney+. But with HBO GO and HBO NOW already in existence, the addition of a third platform for HBO content has caused no small amount of confusion among both prospective customers and current HBO subscribers. Here are answers to all your burning questions about the buzzworthy new service.

What is HBO Max?

HBO Max is a direct-to-consumer streaming platform that you can download as an app or access through your cable or internet provider. Just like Apple has Apple TV+ and Amazon has Prime Video, WarnerMedia now has HBO Max.

How is HBO Max different from HBO NOW and HBO GO?

hbo max streaming platform
This user's viewing habits are eclectic, to say the least.
WarnerMedia

Before HBO Max, WarnerMedia had two different apps with the same library of HBO series and certain Warner Bros. films. HBO GO is for viewers who already pay for HBO through their cable TV provider, which is why you have to log in through your TV provider. HBO NOW is for independent subscribers who pay $15 a month for access to the same content. In other words, HBO GO is for customers with cable, and HBO NOW is for those without it.

Like HBO NOW, HBO Max is an independent subscription service that you don’t need a TV provider in order to access. The main difference comes down to content: While HBO NOW and HBO GO only include HBO series and some films, HBO Max offers tons of additional shows and films licensed from other distributors—plus new, exclusive originals (more on that in a minute).

How much does HBO Max cost, and how do I get it?

You can sign up for HBO Max here. Your first seven days will be free, and it will cost you $15 per month after that.

Do I already have access to HBO Max?

If you’re already an HBO NOW subscriber, your app should have automatically updated to the HBO Max app (if you don’t have automatic updates enabled, make sure to update it manually), and you can log into HBO Max using your existing HBO NOW credentials. Your recurring monthly payment of $15 will also now automatically start applying to HBO Max instead of HBO NOW.

If you watch HBO through your TV or mobile provider, there’s a good chance you can access HBO Max at no additional cost, too. Apple TV channels, AT&T TV, DIRECTV, Hulu, Spectrum, Verizon FIOS, Xfinity, and many other providers are included—you can see the full list here.

Which platforms will HBO Max be on?

You can stream HBO Max on your desktop on HBOMax.com, or you can download the app through the Apple app store, Google Play, or Samsung TV. You can also access HBO Max content on your TV through any of the providers listed here.

What's playing on HBO Max?

hbo max channel hubs
Elmo and James Dean in the same place, at last.
WarnerMedia

HBO Max boasts 10,000 hours of content that includes all HBO shows, many Warner Bros. films from the past century, new Max Original series, and other programs from CNN, Cartoon Network, TNT, TBS, TCM, Adult Swim, and more.

To name a few highlights, the service currently offers all eight Harry Potter films, all 10 seasons of Friends, an exclusive selection of Studio Ghibli classics like Howl’s Moving Castle (2005) and Spirited Away (2002), and 2019’s Joker. The first few episodes of some highly-anticipated Max Originals are also available, including Anna Kendrick’s rom-com series Love Life, the voguing house reality competition Legendary, and Sesame Workshop's The Not-Too-Late Show With Elmo (featuring guests Kacey Musgraves, John Mulaney, the Jonas Brothers, Lil Nas X, and more—so far).

Will I get to see the Friends Reunion?

Yes, the Friends reunion will definitely debut on HBO Max, but no air date has been confirmed yet. Production was delayed because of the coronavirus pandemic, and they’re tentatively hoping to film it sometime this summer. (But hey, at least you have access to all the other Friends episodes to help you pass the time.)