It is Christmas Eve, 1972. Picture the home of Archie Bunker; a typical Queens, NY house with three windows and a door. Inside each of those nearly identical houses (one of which was mine), something charmingly peculiar was going on. Of course, you could not see it from the street – usually, because New Yorkers draw their shades at dusk. You had to live there to appreciate this strangely unique holiday tradition. The Yule Log.
This was not just any Yule Log; and, certainly not a cake, but the WPIX Yule Log, one of television’s most heart warming, time-honored traditions.
I’m originally from New York, although I’ve lived in Indiana much of my adult life. But we (New Yorkers) tend to go over the deep end with holiday traditions, and if it’s an odd one, we keep doing it.
From 1966 to 1989, folks in the Metropolitan area were treated to a televised fireplace (Yule log) on WPIX-11, which burned continuously on Christmas Eve, complete with old fashioned carols playing in the background. I know, you’re probably wondering why in the heck anyone would want to watch a fireplace on TV with carols playing half the night? Well, it goes back to that quirky little New York thing. In Manhattan, and most of the five boroughs, a lot of folks live in apartments; very small apartments. In the 70’s, as today, if you were lucky enough to have a fifth floor walk-up studio with a working fireplace, that was golden. But, most of us did not have a fireplace. The one holiday tradition that brings city apartment dwellers to their knees is the warmth and cheer of a holiday hearth. WPIX-11 provided us with the comfort on Christmas Eve.
The original Log was filmed at Gracie mansion, the official residence of New York City’s mayors. They volunteered its stately fireplace for the taping. This was an offer it probably grumbled about when a spark burned a hole in a very valuable rug in the mansion.
On Christmas Eve, people ran home from work. Stores closed early. Subways seemed to run faster, and cabs drove on the sidewalks – all so we could get home in time to turn on Channel 11. The broadcast was grainy, had a bunch of static, and it “snowed” a lot on our local channel. For you younger viewers, “snow” is what your television or monitors get when you don’t pay your cable or satellite bill.
Liquor stores stocked up, and the delis and specialty shops were filled with last minute shoppers buying treats and comfort foods for their Yule Log parties.
These parties were a common ritual. If you had met someone at a bar or the corner grocer, or a co-worker – or your beau – called and said, “Hey, wanna come by my place for a Christmas Eve nightcap?” you knew what that meant. No, no, no; not that … it was Yule Log Time in NY City! It meant you got lucky, so to speak.
People snuggled up in front in front of their cabinet television sets and watched the mesmerizing blaze, humming along to their favorite Christmas tunes. Couples got engaged over the Yule Log! So what if it was a two dimensional fire? It took you away for a few hours; took you to another place and time. I had memorized that log so well that I knew when each flame would flicker and how. Families gathered around and wrapped gifts in front of the television, decorating them with candles and greenery as if they were real mantles. My young cousin, Reva, asked me if she could hang her stocking on the TV set thinking it was just as good as a real hearth.
In 1989, WPIX-11 decided to take the Yule Log off the air due to financial reasons. Faithful fans wailed in the streets and begged the station to put it back on the air. Poor imitations began to pop up on CDs and DVDs, but they just weren’t the same. Petitions and websites began to surface from past and present native New Yorkers – anyone who had known and loved the Log, as we fondly called it, begging the station to bring it back.
Finally, on Christmas morning, 2001, WPIX-11 reinstated the Yule Log for a few short hours. The ratings went through the roof, surpassing even “Good Morning America.” I believe it was in 2006, in honor of the Log’s 40thbirthday, WPIX ran a special, “The WPIX Yule Log: A Log’s Life,” during the holidays. The original film loop and three hour soundtrack had been digitally re-mastered.
The WPIX Yule Log aired on 10 other stations owned by Tribune Broadcasting as well as the WGN Superstation.
Am I sentimental about the Yule Log? You bet your Brooklyn Bridge I am. Early Christmas morning, 2009, I awoke to a familiar crackle and old time version of “The First Noel.” I arose to my feet for fear I was dreaming, but it was no dream. My old Yule Log was on television once more (don’t ask me what channel it was; I was drunk with joy and don’t remember).
My tradition with the Yule Log usually involved me visiting a friend’s house on the way home to Queens from work. We’d catch the early part of the broadcast with the usual Yule Log jokes and a cocktail. But, it always ended the same way. I would accompany my grandparents to church for the midnight service, and then rush back home for the last part of the Yule Log. Gramps and I would sit at the dining room table, and we shared two things; eggnog and some good Barbados rum. We’d toast our ancestors, bask in the aroma of the bird already in the oven, and comment on how much better the Yule Log looked that year.
For more information on The Yule Log, please visit www.theyulelog.com.