It has been very cold outside in Washington, DC. For those of us fortunate enough to be able to curl up under layers of blankets with hot chocolate, such a course of action seems like the only reasonable thing to do in this weather. Yet there are all sorts of reasons to venture outside, not just jobs and socializing and gift shopping, but also seasonal outdoor exhibits and displays that draw high numbers of visitors despite low temperatures.
One such attraction is on the Ellipse, right outside the White House; it includes the National Christmas Tree, the National Menorah, smaller trees for each state and territory, miniature trains, a life-size Nativity scene, and a stage for performances of holiday song and dance. For many years, the Ellipse also featured Ye Olde Yule Log, a beloved fire pit whose symbolism derives from long-ago Solstice observances, and whose flames offered one warm spot in the park.
The Yule Log is an old (or olde) holiday tradition, with pagan roots celebrating the Winter Solstice, bringing warmth and light on the shortest/darkest day of the year. It has since been adopted as a Christmas tradition in various times and places as well.
In a 2007 article in the Washington Post about Ye Olde Yule Log, words used by visitors to talk about the burning fire included dynamic, chaos theory, magical, alive. A 2009 Post article ends with a father writing of his daughter: “We visit Ye Olde Yule Log every Christmastime. Lily is going on 11 now. I suspect she still misses Santa Claus a little bit. Santa lives forever; not so, little girls. But the bonfire burns on year after year – a source of wonder, for both of us, that can survive getting older.”
Alas, the Yule Log on the Ellipse burned for its last year in 2011. The National Park Service redesigned the site layout, providing a backdrop of the White House (rather than the Chamber of Commerce) for the performance stage – and the Yule Log had to go. In a January 2014 letter to the editor of the Washington Post, one Yule Log fan describes her observations that in the Yule Log’s last years, NPS’s interpretation and maintenance of the installation had already been on the decline.
The letter writer was not the only one to be disappointed by the absence of Ye Olde Yule Log, as seen in this article from 2012 (the first year without it). I personally miss its presence and its warmth. And while the evergreen trees decorating the Ellipse also have a role in the Solstice tradition, it is a shame that the most obvious symbol of Winter Solstice has been removed from the display.
Tomorrow marks the Winter Solstice for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere. Whatever you are doing on the shortest day of the year, may you stay warm!