When it comes to perversely compelling holiday traditions, little competes with “The Yule Log” video.

Each Christmas Eve, TV screens become blazing fireplaces, thanks to an idea ignited almost 50 years ago. Digital advances now enable computer screens to flicker with flames. A video crackling on a smartphone makes even the loneliest booth in the diner a cozy retreat.

You’ll need a space heater to provide any warmth, but we’re here to shed additional light on this phenomenon.

In the beginning

The first “The Yule Log” film was created in 1966 when the president of WPIX-TV in New York City thought residents in fireplace-deprived apartments would appreciate the commercial-free visual. Airing the three-hour program also would let his employees spend Christmas Eve with their families. With musical accompaniment by the likes of Percy Faith, Nat King Cole and the Ray Conniff Singers, the “show” was an immediate success and was rebroadcast for 23 years until 1989, when times were changing and ad revenue was needed. The log was extinguished.

 

Burning locally

In the Twin Cities, a yule log video has aired on KSTC, Ch. 45, since 2003, when cameramen for Hubbard Broadcasting “found a fireplace in a restaurant and started some wood and just stood there and shot it for a few hours,” said Katie Bowman, program coordinator. “That’s as brilliant as it was.”

Four videos have been shot over the years. The current video “now has the perfect flame-to-ash ratio,” Bowman said, besting others that had “bad brick” or “not enough flame.” They’ve added new songs, too, but the fire’s crackle still is audible. “We have it on at my house and my brother is absolutely enchanted with who’s going to poke the fire,” she said.

“Yule Log” will air on KSTC 6 p.m. Wednesday until midnight Thursday.

Burning man

Veteran log-watchers know well the frisson of excitement when an arm, almost inevitably clad in a plaid shirt, appears onscreen (although not in the original film). The arm may add a fresh log, or merely prod the embers with a poker.

The owner of the arm prodding the fire in KSTC’s video isn’t top-secret, but he asked if he could remain anonymous.

“I just don’t want to get a lot of e-mails and Facebook requests, ‘So you’re the yule log guy, huh?’ ” said the man, who allowed that he was “a St. Paul guy.”

He got the job because someone asked, “and I was more than happy to do it.” Not having his own fireplace at the time, he relied on instinct. “I add logs and prod the fire and stuff,” he said, then added, “The logs in the fire all know their lines.”

He’s been the arm in two versions, both shot at outdoor restaurant patios.

“People come over and ask if this is the yule log video and they’re genuinely very excited about it,” he said. “They gather around us and we all just watch the logs burn.

“They ask when it’s going to air and I’m like, ‘Well, Christmas.’ ”

Tidings of comfort

When the original yule log went off the air, New York City residents had to rely on Internet versions. Then in 2001, the video returned for two hours on Christmas Day. The general manager of WPIX-TV told the New York Times that it “was a tradition whose time has returned.” But she also acknowledged, in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, that “this is a year when everyone is clamoring for ‘comfort food’ television.” The log won the highest Nielsen rating in New York City for that time slot.

The original Vine?

The 16-millimeter film loop of the original yule log was only 17 seconds long, making the fire look both especially twitchy and endearingly cheesy. Four years later, the film was reshot to repeat itself every six minutes. Today’s loops are much longer, with KSTC’s loop at one hour and 10 minutes; the audio loop is two hours and 18 minutes.

Quitting while ahead

A Canadian cable company once tried to create a similar vibe for Thanksgiving with “Turkey TV” — a video of a roasting turkey with an arm occasionally reaching into the oven to baste the bird. It was a bust. Yet in Norway, Slow TV offers such programming as 18 hours of salmon fishing, with hours passing before the first bite, or the knitting of a sweater. Slow TV is a hit.

Where there’s smoke …

In 2012, a yule log video was played on the Jumbotron at Mosaic Stadium in Regina, Saskatchewan, home of the Roughriders football team. But people began calling 911, frantically reporting that the stadium was ablaze, according to the Toronto Star. Some even reported the smell of smoke. The football team agreed to change the video to “maybe some snowflakes or Santa.” This just in: Giant Santa terrorizes Regina.

Imitation vs. flattery

A number of yule log videos are available on YouTube. One includes a tasteful greenery-bedecked mantel. Another’s flames conjure the gates of hell.

Last year’s hit variation was “Lil BUB’s Magical Yule Log Video,” featuring the famous dwarf cat, or perma-kitten, whose tongue always hangs out because of her condition. (http://bit.ly/12HTsMu)

Netflix offers three episodes of “Fireplace for Your Home.” A typical review: “I love this, however I wish there were more fire options. Further, the split log on the left resembles more of a plank than a natural log and is distracting to the overall ambience created by the fire.”

Check out the “making of” video at http://bit.ly/1A0rKoj, which calls to mind how Quentin Tarantino might approach the project.

And, of course, there is a “Bacon Yule Log,” a 16-minute loop of bacon frying in a cast iron skillet placed over burning logs (http://bit.ly/1260dqm) sponsored by a meat purveyor in New Jersey.

What the Yule Log means

From www.theyulelog.com, a tribute to Fred Thrower, who thought of the idea:

“The Yule Log was a distinctly unpretentious concept whose beauty lay in its simplicity. It wasn’t just a piece of celluloid with the image of a flickering fireplace flying through the airwaves. It was a symbol. A symbol of a simpler time. …

“It was a representation of tradition, and people had their own reasons for tuning in. Whether a background centerpiece with beautiful carols while you had Christmas Eve dinner or a festive assembly of dancing flames while you opened your presents, the Yule Log was always there, and you could count on its presence year after year.

“A simple idea by a thoughtful man.”