The Luminous Story Behind TV's Yule Log
By Suzanne Raga
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.