The Yule Log's Long and Bright TV History

Aubry D'Arminio
Yule Log

Here’s a little-known fact about the Yule Log, which airs every Christmas Day: It’s the same single, pink-tinged seven-minute clip filmed in a Palo Alto, California, home in August 1970 that repeats dozens of times while the same batch of holiday tunes play over it in the same order (starting with Percy Faith’s rendition of “Joy to the World”). Though Netflix and other networks now offer their own crackling versions, WPIX’s classic starts with a wide shot of the living room and two red stockings flanking a blank-faced rag doll pinned by its neck to the mantle. “That’s the one,” theyulelog.com’s Lawrence F. “Chip” Arcuri, who oversaw a 2009 music restoration, says of the clip. “There’s no replicating that doll or the warmth of that fireplace.”

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That flame was first lit in 1966, when the preemption of college basketball meant New York City’s WPIX had 90 minutes of airtime to fill on December 24. Station president Fred M. Thrower, who got the idea from a Coca-Cola ad featuring Santa and a fireplace, announced that the channel would cancel all programming that night to air a “Christmas card” to its viewers. The “card” was 17 seconds of 16-millimeter footage shot at Gracie Mansion (home to then-mayor John Lindsay), playing in a jumpy loop while holiday songs from Thrower’s wife’s record collection were heard in the background.

Four years later, the clip had degraded, but since WPIX’s camera crew had been banned from Gracie Mansion for ruining a $4,000 rug during filming, the station went looking for the most striking fireplace in America. With that, the Yule Log was born.

The Log aired on Christmas Eve (and occasionally on Christmas Day) throughout the country for 19 more years before it was canceled. When then–WPIX general manager Betty Ellen Berlamino wanted to resurrect the tradition after 9/11, she discovered the reel was lost. “I knew it was going to be a tough holiday and thought, ‘What special programming can we do?’” Berlamino says. Then, program director Julie O’Neill discovered the footage inside a canister for the Honeymooners episode “A Dog’s Life”; it’s aired on WPIX Tribune affiliates and various cable networks since. “My dad found out the Log was coming back right before he passed away,” says Mitch Thrower. “That was really special.”

The Yule Log (check local listings)