There is a large block pit in the ground on the Ellipse, south of the White House. For most of the year, it is hidden from view. But come Christmas season, the room-size hole is uncovered to serve as the place to keep the yule log burning. This tradition dates back decades, certainly as long as I can remember. A festive sign explained the pagan origins of the yule log and its place in Christmas traditions.
The fire was a marvel. The logs were so large and the fire so intense that it burned not just orange but blue. The heat generated was comforting, particularly when the evening was cold. The smell of the burning logs reminded us of days spent sitting by a fire toasting marshmallows or telling stories. Crowds were often so deep that you had to wait in line to get close.
There was always a park ranger stationed at the pit, explaining where the logs came from (dead or diseased trees from an area national forest) and how the fire was managed. Every few hours when the fire waned, another ranger would drive a small forklift over and dump in a new pile of logs. When the logs were dropped and the sparks flew, the crowd oohed and ahhed at the heat, the glow and the simple joy of the fire itself. A friend of mine used to get off her bus a stop early just so she could take in some of that primal fire and smoke.
Christmas 2008 was the beginning of the end. The sign disappeared. I asked about it and was told that it was being rewritten because someone had complained. Without a sign, the fire was left unexplained. People would walk up to it and say, oh, look, a fire pit. One year after that, the ranger was nowhere to be found. Once we had to search for someone to add needed logs because the fire was unattended.
Finally, in 2012, the yule log itself was gone. I made inquiries with the Park Service and my congressman but never got a response. I even tried to get a petition started on WhiteHouse.gov. When I discovered that it was missing again this year, I called and e-mailed. I finally was given two reasons for the removal of the log.
First, the Park Service said that the burning of logs is not environmentally friendly; presumably it adds to air pollution in an urban environment.
Could the smoke from a fire that burns about 30 days a year — in the center of a city and in an area surrounded by major traffic — truly be that harmful? I’d love to see the environmental-impact statement that justifies such a conclusion.
Second, the Park Service said it had to remove the display to reconfigure the stage for the tree lighting, providing better views of the White House.
In other words, it took away a display that probably thousands of people enjoyed and many of us looked forward to every year to accommodate those participating in a few hours of the tree lighting. I guess the interests of the masses amount to little when VIPs are crowding a viewing stand.
The writer lives in Burtonsville.