Toasting the Season on the Ellipse

By David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 25, 2007

The place to be on a chill December evening is snug among the spellbound crowd basking in the heat and light of Washington's monumental bonfire.

The National Park Service calls it "Ye Olde Yule Log," burning in a pit on the Ellipse near the National Christmas Tree, just down from the White House. But the phrase hardly captures the miracle of this holiday inferno. The first words uttered by so many new pilgrims to the blazing oasis show how much of our original selves we have lost:

"Is that fire . . . real?"

Yes, Virginia. The fire is real. Its very realness is one of the epiphanies of the national yule log. It burns continuously from Dec. 7 to Jan. 2, defying every instinct of the push-button, homeland security society.

Did we say yule log, as in the singular noun? Ha!

At any given moment, nearly two dozen stumps are ablaze, and they are monstrous. Some have the circumference of bass drums, the heft of small automobiles. Throwing another log on the fire requires a forklift.

The result is Fire -- FIRE!-- in all its primitive power to astonish, to reveal, to recall. Orange flames flap like mainsails beneath squalls of firefly sparks. Below, in the depths of the pit -- brick-lined, roughly 8-by-12 feet and 5 feet deep -- orange and blue cathedrals throb in the layers upon layers of winter fuel, each piece getting smaller, hotter and more fundamental.

The nightly crowd around the fire has more residents than tourists. That's how you know a Washington attraction is an insider's delight. All the faces are limned in flickering gold, overriding their natural skin colors, as if they had become one firelit race. At first everyone is mesmerized, just staring. Then there is murmuring, louder talking -- English, Spanish, Chinese -- some of it meant to be heard by the wider group. The Christmas bonfire is at once a solitary and communal experience. The flames ignite memory, spark speculation. Listen:

"You know that fire Grandpa used to have on his farm? This is like that."

"It's randomly dynamic."

"Do you know anything about chaos theory?"

"Where is Al Gore on this?"

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