The custom of locking a TV camera in front of a roaring fire for an hour or two has brought old-fashioned holiday cheer into countless homes since 1966, when the tradition launched on New York’s WPIX-TV and sister station WGN in Chicago.
Back then a televised fireplace allowed urban apartment dwellers to experience one of the comforting perks of life in the suburbs. These days, everyone likes a Yule Log. Every streaming service has at least one. YouTube is overflowing with eight-hour fireplace videos with your choice of musical accompaniments. (Most are terrible. We’ll get to that later.)
What I love about the Yule Log is that success has not spoiled it. Charlie Brown may have only been able to find a raggedy Christmas tree for sale, but that TV special has made millions of dollars. Frosty, Rudolph, and the Grinch are all old money by now. And Dolly Parton isn't doing all those holiday specials for charity.
The Yule Log, however, has managed to stay true to its humble origins despite rampant holiday commercialism. The WPIX version, and all of the other early local TV varations, was a loop of film or tape that played for as long as management was willing to forgo commercial breaks. Nowadays it’s an hours-long video loop that you can stream on your laptop while it sits on the hearth, or wherever. The Yule Log can absorb a little branding — a logo in the corner of the screen, or Disney's Frozen-themed versions. But too much commercialism undermines the whole idea of the Yule Log program, which is to create the illusion that a toasty fire has suddenly broken out on your screen. The moment you drop in an announcement or a six-second Old Spice ad, you’ve ruined it.
Showing a lively, colorful fire for hours is also a great way to show off your new 4K big screen, just as the original heatless inferno was a delightful demonstration of the wonders of color television. And I suspect that with people taking COVID more seriously than ever, and more blockbuster movies going straight-to-video every week, the Yule Log will be especially popular this season. It can help rekindle memories of the Christmas we usually spend with others while we gaze at it inside our lonely silos.
Here are three of my favorites:
Fireplace for Your Home (Netflix, YouTube)
George Ford’s classic Yule Log DVD series checks all my boxes: no humans, no pets, no holiday classics blaring in the foreground. Just hours and hours of flames, crackles and pops. Netflix, no fools they, decided that instead of trying to do better than Ford, it would just buy the rights from him. You’ve got your choice of three videos, including two with music. You can also find Fireplace for Your Home on YouTube.
Arendelle Castle Yule Log (Disney+)
If you or your child are fans of Frozen, this three-hour Disney+ streaming blaze contains stockings and other on-screen elements that will remind you of the movie franchise. If you’re not a fan, the branding is so unobtrusive that you won’t even realize you have a giant Disney advertisement up on the screen. For 2021, there's also a new fanciful "Cut Paper Edition" of the Arendelle Castle Yule Log, with cut-out paper flames and eye candy for the kids.
Stardust Vibes (YouTube)
This one from a mental health-based YouTube channel is meant to play in the bedroom. Just a quiet crackling fire with sounds of blustery weather blowing outside as you nod off to sleep. Then, after 90 minutes (assuming you disabled YouTube’s autoplay feature, which you should), it’s silent night.
For the traditionalists, Antenna TV will be airing the original WPIX Yule Log Christmas morning from 5:00 AM - 10:00 AM ET. It will also air locally on these stations:
Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.