Plenty of greeting cards and animated television specials will have you believe Christmas is the time of year where we can set aside ideological differences and celebrate our shared humanity. But anyone who has ever witnessed a heated debate over a Starbucks cup knows that’s utter garbage. Thankfully, one holiday tradition offers equal appeal to both sides of the political divide: the yule log video.
Playing a recording of a lit fireplace on your television screen may not offer literal heat, but it establishes an atmosphere of quiet comfort that can warm even the coldest of hearts. And by refusing to demand your bank account or even your full attention, it’s long stood as an anti-consumerist staple of an increasingly materialistic holiday. So to begin, let’s dive into some burning history.
“You really have to see this to believe it.”
That was Fred M. Thrower’s description of the first Yule Log television broadcast. The problem? It didn’t actually exist yet. The CEO was in the midst of pitching what he described as a Christmas card to the viewers of New York City television station WPIX. The proposed special would broadcast two-and-a-half commercial-free hours of a blazing fireplace onto viewers’ television sets, with the crackling flames accompanied by an assortment of seasonal carols and hymns.
It would also require the cancellation of $4,000 dollars ($36,000+ when adjusted for inflation) of pre-sold ad space. But if anyone tried to dissuade Thrower, they were either overruled or won over by the idea of getting the night off.
When “The Yule Log” first aired on Christmas Eve of 1966, Thrower’s proposed five-minute loop of footage was trimmed down to a mere 17 seconds that would have to be looped more than 500 times during the course of the broadcast. This change was made in part because producers removed a protective grate from the fireplace to allow a better shot of the flames, allowing a stray ember to set a $4,000 antique rug ablaze.
Nevertheless, the program was an instant success. What The New York Times described as “the television industry’s first experiment in nonprogramming” became a yearly tradition that topped the ratings, with numerous television stations around the United States either rebroadcasting WPIX’s footage or filming their own.
This continued for nearly a quarter century.
When a change in management led to the program being canceled before its 1990 broadcast, WPIX general manager Michael Eigner cited the commercial unviability of running a program that didn’t contain any advertising. WPIX began to stream “The Yule Log” online in 1997 and brought the broadcast back to television in 2001 as a response to the September 11th attacks. But that brief absence would explode the legacy of the yule log video far beyond the station’s control.
The yule log video now belonged to the people. The demand for fireplace footage was still high and the simple-to-replicate format made it easy for people to produce and distribute their own versions. The rise of affordable home video meant one could find yule log videos on VHS everywhere from video stores to gas stations, while screensavers and eventually online video made them available on every home computer. Parodies existed, of course, but they stayed relatively true to what the yule log had come to represent: boldly anti-consumerist background entertainment that put ambience over marketing.
And then everything went to sh**.
The last decade has seen an explosion of yule log videos created for the sole purpose of marketing massive IPs and burgeoning entertainment franchises. Anyone interested in spending 30+ hours watching a Marvel superhero’s fireplace needn’t look far, as The ‘Pool Log was followed by ten superhero yule log videos produced in partnership with (get ready for this) Coca-Cola, videos for each of the Venom films, and a tie-in with the Disney+ Hawkeye series.
And while it’s great that Hollywood threw Hawkeye fans two bones within the same calendar decade, it’s hard to deny that a fireplace in Tony Stark’s apartment or the Guardians of the Galaxy’s spaceship doesn’t have the same effect when you can barely see it behind a meticulously arranged still frame of Easter eggs.
Still, at least those videos don’t demand a viewer’s active attention. DreamWorks Animation has released yule log tie-ins with Shrek, Trolls, How To Train Your Dragon, and The Croods that spend between ten minutes and eight-and-a-half hours parading characters out for a quip or a visual gag. What was once a vehicle of passive ambiance now insists upon your full focus, lest you miss something and fall behind.
As annoying as it is to have to watch a spinoff miniseries to understand what’s happening in a movie, it’s nothing compared to completionists having to debate which of Frozen’s four-hour yule log videos is canon.
Yule log videos have been used to promote new seasons of Outlander, Doctor Who, American Horror Story, The Witcher, and What We Do in the Shadows. Video game tie-ins have included Minecraft, Hades, Hearthstone, and Overwatch. The original concept for the yule log was an explicit rejection of an over-commercialized holiday season, with Fred M. Thrower willing to throw away his network’s money to give viewers a cynical-free bit of Christmas joy.
Now, yule log videos are almost nothing but commercials. And with no sign of slowing down on the horizon (Adult Swim Yule Log, rated TV-MA for violence, adult language, and brief nudity, will release on December 11th), audiences are left with a question.
Why do you hate Christmas, Hollywood?
And furthermore, why haven’t you made these terrible ideas yet?
Hellraiser Yule Log
An official horror franchise yule log is no farther removed from the spirit of Christmas than the time Netflix tried to promote their 2017 film Bright with a yule log video consisting of a flaming barrel in an alleyway covered in racist anti-orc graffiti. And who better to take the lead than everyone’s favorite sexually charged slasher franchise?
With a new film having just been released and Pinhead’s design practically begging to be covered in tinsel regardless of what gender the Cenobite is portrayed as, Hellraiser Yule Log is the blood-soaked holiday tradition the family has been waiting for.
The Matrix Yule Log
The Matrix Resurrections made a particularly unsubtle jab at Warner Bros. Pictures’ wish to produce more with the franchise regardless of what creators Lana and Lily Wachowski have to say about it. So why hasn’t Neo gotten the same ten-hour Yule Log the studio gave the Justice League?
Nothing could be cozier than watching green numbers slide across a digital fireplace while your Elon Musk-obsessed uncle tries to explain why we’re really living in a simulation.
Super Mario Bros. Yule Log
You’re telling me Sonic the Hedgehog can get a yule log but everyone’s favorite plumber/doctor/go-kart driver cannot? Not cool!
And with promotion ramping up for the animated film, this is a great time for audiences to spend an hour or two getting used to Chris Pratt’s remarkably authentic Italian accent. Wahoo, indeed.
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer Yule Log
I know what you’re thinking, powerful Hollywood executive who is definitely reading this. Yes, this does actually sound like a great idea. With more than100 yule log videos produced for recognizable IPs and counting, it’s about time someone produced one for an actual holiday franchise that isn’t that Grinch movie starring Benedict Cumberbatch.
But the felt puppets used in the Rankin/Bass stop-motion classic are extremely flammable, and accidentally starting a fire while filming would be close enough to the spirit of WPIX’s original “The Yule Log” production to send three ironic ghosts your way this Christmas Eve.