Holiday Hangover: The Yule Log

Nathan Fielder has a preternatural ability to bend time and space. On Nathan For You, he uses his powers in service of scratching at the essential meaninglessness of life on earth. Not in a nihilistic way, though, his is a noble quest. He assumes a quiet, alien perspective, observing quizzically and stoically, with ethnographic objectivity not unlike that of “The Female” in Under the Skin, as, for example, a man signs over rights to his DNA after death to get a less-than-plum spokesperson gig, or an online acquaintance shrugs-off the surreptitious collection and testing of his urine, or a set of parents deliberately risk exposing their child to depraved hedonism.

He’s a minimalist absurdist oxymoron of and for this particular age and he constructs a vast hall-of-mirrors with his anti-comedy-cum-performance-art. Pregnant pauses coerce strange, unsettling undercurrents of the modern human condition and the exquisite soul-sickness of late-capitalism. He uncomfortably caresses the core of people’s insecurities—individually and culturally—with conceits that follow a zigzagging but lucid rationality. They are paradoxes, in other words, where reality itself is both reified and refuted, which makes them perfect rejoinders for the earnestness and artifice of modern media forms, in all incarnations. Bear with me here: turn this idea holiday-ward and you get something like the Yule Log.

The clearest example of Nathan’s singular pursuit of bargain-barrel ultimate truth came while helping a flagging bar. His plan: allow patrons to smoke indoors. This led to efforts around California state law—the loophole: turn the bar into a theater and make smoking integral to the artistic integrity of the “performances.” So, he assembles the bare minimum of theatrical necessity: actors (a disclaimer at the door warns that all who enter are willfully becoming players), audience (two theater seats placed by the pinball machines), a curtain to separate the two, and a sign outside to advertise.

The conundrum: people (both of them) respond well to the play, enjoying the hours of slice-of-life nothingness. So he decides to craft a moment-by-moment recreation using real actors in the bar scene, subjecting them to rigorous rehearsals, study sessions, and discomfiting, intimate stagecraft dissection, all to hone the simple movements and small moments from the first “production.” It’s charmingly low-stakes stuff and it resonates on some bizarre wavelength with at least some of the people involved, “audience” and “crew.”

It’s ersatz normalcy, in other words, but even when the familiar and the unassuming is outwardly artificial, it proves oddly enveloping. Perhaps this is the comfort of modern media in some forms, especially TV, to deliver doses of the expected and the rote, to craft repetition and monotony to placate and soothe—even patterned artificiality (tropes, rhythms, themes, styles, character types) feeds this. Even deeper, film and TV are often defined by their precise recreation of the everyday and this pursuit guides expectation—believability, relatability, authenticity, realism, truth; these are words we use to describe works that resonate. For us too, watching something ordinary becomes at once thrilling, intimate, and entrancing, aloof yet moving.

This search for the fundamental warmth in the totally mundane is perfectly embodied in the Yule Log. It’s a concept that is not just a little avant-garde—a log placed on the fire and burning down to embers then looped back—but with the opposite effect—harmony and kindly invitation rather than disaffection and alienation. It’s like a modest-scale ’60s happening—where film and TV harvested environment and atmosphere as diffuse background installations—but for a more conservative, family values sect.

As it turns out, the Yule Log has a conflicted heritage; its hazy origins as a folk custom may derive from Germanic paganism. As Henry Bourne, believed-earliest Yule Log scholar, stated in 1725: “Our fore-fathers lay a log of wood upon the fire, which they termed Yule-Clog, or Christmas-Block. These were to illuminate the house, and turn night into day.” This would mark it as perhaps the most unassuming signifier of the strange, tangled, gory history of pagan ancestral ritual awkwardly gnarled within the metastasis of Christianity throughout the modern age, especially in the holiday season. I’m sure if Bourne were to examine the texts of the modern world—your Back to the Future Part IIs, the preponderance and playfulness of rear projection, even your run-of-the-mill callous marketing ploy—he would find significance in the motif of screens and projections creating illusive domestic atmosphere, and would trace back to the “heathen Saxons” of yore.

The TV Yule Log is an “extreme example of substitution,” as Lynn Spigel, longstanding authority on TV-as-hearth matters, put it. The TV literalizes its own position as hearth and acknowledges its centrality—the TV singularity where it becomes self-aware in the meekest way. A portion of Spigel’s thesis in her seminal “Making Room for TV”: “in postwar years the television set became a central figure in representations of family relationships…Television was the great family minstrel that promised to bring Mom, Dad, and’ the kids together.” Homer paraphrasing: “Television! Teacher, mother, secret lover.” It blends in seamlessly with the cozy surroundings as appliance and piece of the home and the family dynamic. Once, family’s gathered around the fire, then, after the world collapsed, they gathered around the television. It replaced the fireplace as the focal-point of the home, supplanting the warm glow with a more rambunctious sort of cool fuzzy radiance. People built their living spaces around it, chairs and sofas facing it rather than each other—a new geometry of life.

In ages past, it was so decreed to be unlucky to have to rekindle the Yule log; so, in keeping, the television is left on in perpetuity, and ought not to go off, remaining central through the festivities and the feast, lest the circle be broken. To play a continuous loop of a burning log in a fireplace is both logical and illogical in a way that only TV can provide. TV, known for its direct address, frenetic energy, and latent artificiality/theatricality/spectator management takes a step to the background rather than asserting its dominance. It acknowledged its centrality in a way that is both subtle and forthright. The Yule Log, in other words, was a veiled statement of confidence from a medium firmly coming into its own.

It’s no surprise then that the modern Yule Log has given to exercises to inject foreground elements. There have been variations over the years and the slight adjustments are significant. Some depict just the fire itself—slowly burning, crackling logs, some with music, some without. Here, the frame itself is the maw of the fireplace. Sometimes, the camera is placed just a bit further out and the whole mantle is visible. Sometimes even, extra elements will surround the fireplace, including animals sitting by the fire, creating a mise en abyme effect. These are the nuances of the Yule Log text; more precocious dalliances would follow. In a fractal media landscape, The Yule Log is streamable on Netflix with different wood and viewing options; it’s available in Star Wars form; and there is a Yule Log text featuring patron saint of mustaches and all things wood, Nick Offerman, sipping whiskey and basking in that which he hath wrought.

The steady, slow-burn disintegration of the television has created a different reality. As many move to other glowing shapes, so too has the organization of living spaces come undone. With the diminished importance of the television proper, our relation to the mediated home is uncertain. It’s still a primordial instinct though, to flock to the flame, to seek warmth, especially as the cold season rolls around. It’s obvious but it’s instinctual and it’s the basis for the communal—individual survival instincts and wants give way to more complex notions of community and mutual necessity. The advent of fire bearing was the flashpoint for human innovation, a turning point where we could conjure and control dangerous elements and use them for our own benefit. The TV Yule Log elevates the living environment, if only in the mind, with the push of a button. It’s transportive but with some lack and anxiety that is always underlying. But, in a post-television world, where screens are dispersed, where does this leave us? Does the Yule Log have the same resonance and the same atmospheric effect?

A couple years ago, while briefly at home with my family for the holidays, I snapped a picture of my dog lying comfortably by the TV, the hearth of the living room, with the facsimile hearth of the Yule Log on the screen. It stuck out to me as a pure postmodern moment, but not some heady exercise, rather one that the whole family could enjoy. Just as people flocked to the nothingness of “Smokers Allowed,” so too is the Yule Log an au fait holiday tradition. And both have narcoleptic merit as background with no foreground. But the Yule Log has a way of mirroring this back, acknowledging television’s centrality and importance, as well as our place in the circle. Like a moth to the flame, each year, I dutifully seek out this log and bask in the cold, comforting faux-glow.

This article was written by Oliver O’Sullivan, a writer for dusk magazine. 

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  1. “Like being slowly drowned in a peat bog…” – *Dusk Magazine

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