From a TV perspective, Christmas Eve 1966 looked grim. The regular Saturday night college basketball broadcast was suspended due to the holiday, and while many viewers in the New York area might have had something better to do, those who tuned in to local broadcaster WPIX would face an hour and a half of nothing, followed by a roller derby at 11:30. WPIX president Fred Thrower had a suggestion: the station would announce the cancellation of all its programming that evening "in order to present a WPIX Christmas card to our viewers." (The roller derby, Thrower noted, "we can easily knock out.") That Christmas card, he proposed in a November 1966 memo, would be a closeup shot of a cheery fireplace, complete with Christmas stockings and flaming Yule logs, "which would be repeated (via a looping process) over and over continuously" accompanied by Christmas music. It would serve, he hoped, as a comforting holiday backdrop for those New York apartment-dwellers with no fireplace of their own. The WPIX Yule Log debuted on Dec. 24, 1966. It ran commercial-free for three hours. (See TIME's top 10 Holiday TV Specials
The New York Times called it "the television industry's first experiment in nonprogramming." It was a surrealist's joke, a postmodernist's dream the television, literally, as the family hearth and an immediate success. The Yule Log became a TV mainstay in New York that regularly won its time slot; dozens of other U.S. cities either picked up the WPIX footage or shot their own. The Log did have its drawbacks, however. The original 16mm footage (shot in Gracie Mansion, home of New York Mayor John Lindsay) was only 17 seconds long, and the flames skipped noticeably every time it looped. In 1970, with the original film deteriorating, WPIX decided to reshoot the video as a six-minute 35mm loop. When producers approached the Mayor's office for permission to film again in Gracie Mansion, however, they were denied: during the production of the first Yule Log, the legend goes, the camera crew had removed a fire grate to get a better shot, and sparks had burnt through a $4,000 carpet.
The 1970 Yule Log, which is the one most viewers are familiar with (and which was finally filmed in a California fireplace in the sweltering heat), ran until 1989. By that time the show if you can call it that had been cut back to two hours; to many station executives, the Yule Log was an antique, and its long-running, commercial-free format a financial drain. The fire was snuffed out in 1989. The Yule Log spirit, however, proved harder to extinguish. In ensuing years, and especially following the growth of the Internet, fans of the original Log began clamoring for its return. Joseph Malzone, a New Jersey-based audio-video technician, and music collector Lawrence "Chip" Arcuri started theyulelog.com to commemorate the holiday special, and collected hundreds of supportive email messages demanding its return. After the 9/11 terror attacks, amid growing demand for what WPIX's president called "comfort food" television, the station agreed to digitally remaster the Log, and restore it to its place of glory. In 2006, for its 40th anniversary, Malzone and Arcuri resurrected the original soporific audio, featuring recordings from Percy Faith, Henry Mancini and the Ray Coniff Singers.
The Yule Log is now available on demand, in HD, and as a downloadable podcast. It's been the subject of a TV documentary, A Log's Life. Visitors to Stephen Colbert's website can watch their own Book Burning Yule Log. And for the full meta effect, there's even a YouTube video where you can watch the Log burning on a TV screen on your computer.
This holiday season, Log lore has a new wrinkle: Chicago-based cable network WGN America has re-recorded a new version of the holiday classic for broadcast nationwide. Yule Log: The Golden Age of Christmas promises nine hours of freshly filmed, high-definition Yule Log merriment, from the office fireplace of former Tribune Co. President Colonel McCormick, accompanied by recordings of classic radio shows including rarely-heard radio versions of holiday classics A Christmas Carol and It's a Wonderful Life (featuring Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed reprising their film roles.)
For the Yule Log purists, though, it was as if WGN America tried to sell New Coke. In response to a CBS Sunday Morning video comparing the two yule logs, fans bombarded segment host Mo Rocca's blog with protests ("The person who wants the new yule log is a f**king loser and an communist. He should get fired from his job. Merry Christmas," one wrote). Sean Compton, WGN's Senior Vice President for Programming Entertainment, received email complaints as well. "I'm getting attacked," he says. "I had 10 emails this morning, and I don't know how they're getting my address." Compton, who came to WGN from radio, originally came up with the idea after stumbling across the radio plays on the Internet one Christmas Eve a couple years ago. "These are shows that haven't been heard in 60 years. You'd think if anything, the traditionalists would be like, 'This is really cool.' Mitch Thrower, son of the Yule Log's creator, isn't sure his father would agree. "If my Dad was around now, I suspect he would have preferred the traditional WPIX Yule Log," he says, "because of the sentimental value for millions of people, and the power of tradition."
It's not entirely a fair comparison to WGN: While the national cable network plans to run the Golden Age of Christmas special, local affiliates like New York's WPIX will still air their traditional Yule Log programming. And in the spirit of the season, WGN announced Dec. 22 that, in the wake of the complaints, it would follow its Christmas Eve broadcast of the new Yule Log with a Christmas Day showing of the original. For those keeping score, that's almost ten and a half hours of festive holiday combustion and for fans of Fred Thrower's original inspiration, it's nothing short of a Christmas miracle.