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?"
"You wish you had marshmallows?!" (Actually, someone did the other day, and proceeded to roast them on long metal sticks.)
"Those look like walnut logs. Surely they're not burning walnut logs."
That last voice belongs to Mike McCann, a 60-something administrator with the Farm Service Agency. Every year, he and his wife, Robin, also with the FSA, come in from Fairfax City on an evening like this.
"I don't know what it is about a fire," says Robin McCann.
"It's magical," says Mike McCann. "It seems alive."
Walnut logs? The wood -- about 130 tons each December -- comes from "hazardous" trees cut down before they fall across bike paths and buildings in area national parks. This is a regional combustion, with contributions from Rock Creek Park, Anacostia Park, the George Washington Memorial Parkway, Antietam, the C&O Canal. The trail mix that hazard delivers typically comprises elm, poplar, red cedar, willow oak. The woodpile lies just beyond the circle of light, a vast timbered reef extending into the night.
While you meditate on the fire, you are treated to an awesome holiday music mix, playing on a repeating loop. The most surreal moment occurs several times a day when the voices of John Lennon, Yoko Ono and a children's choir send the cherubic refrain of "Happy Christmas" wafting toward the Truman Balcony: "War is over, if you want it."
The National Christmas Tree is glitzily spectacular, with the White House illuminated like a wedding cake in the background. A life-size nativity scene is a short stroll from the fire, with an intensely blond-haired, blue-eyed Baby Jesus.
But it is to the fire that people return after making the rounds. Their motive is in part practical, to get warm. A red chain-link fence keeps everyone back about six feet from the pit. If you stepped closer you'd burst into flames. The fence is hot to the touch. Your back is cold, but your face is hot. Your eyes sting. The heat currents do not swirl as low as your toes, so you lift your feet one at a time and balance them in the chain links.
"John, you're not going to believe this."
"That's a big fire."
"I feel like my eyelashes are melting."
"I can feel my nose again."
"I feel my pores opening."
But what draws them to the fire is more than warmth for the body. It satisfies a yearning of the soul.
"I also make snowballs," Sandra Gengler, from Cromwell, Conn., is saying. "I put walnuts in mine."
She has just finished reciting to those within earshot the prodigious list of cookies she makes this time of year. The fire got her feeling nostalgic and chummy, and she started talking cookies. Her son, David Lickwar, an Army contractor living in Hyattsville, brought her to the fire.
"If you close your eyes you can almost imagine you're back home sitting in the chair, drinking the cocoa, eating the cookies, feeling the peace," she says. "You forget about the commercialism of the holiday season."
The flames and smoke conjure the fires of yesteryear. College bonfires, solstice bonfires, beach bonfires, pit fires to slow-roast the wild boar and the fatted calf . . .
Every three hours or so comes the singular Dance of the Forklift. The late-shift operator is Fred Adams, a 33-year veteran of the Park Service from Southeast Washington, the hunch-shouldered maestro at the controls. He motors the machine to the woodpile, selects a fat timber. He uses the blades like a spatula, nudging the log into position, then hoisting it high. He bears it to the fire like an offering, like a chalice on a tray.
He doesn't just dump it into the pit, he selects a precise location to most enhance the burn. He wheels the truck to the edge of the inferno, reaches the blades over the flames and deposits the log with something akin to the soft hands of a basketball player making a layup.
The impact sends a splash of flame and a spray of sparks skyward.
"Now that was cool," says Gladys Ruiz-Malca, 13. She and her friends on an eighth-grade field trip from Hyattsville Middle School have just arrived at the fire. From a distance they couldn't believe their wondering eyes. It looked fake. In their experience, spectacles like this are created with digital special effects, or by switching on a pilot light and dialing up the gas on the asbestos logs.
"Then when you get close you see it's actually real, and you see the sparks," says Gladys.
Adults need convincing, too. At first, they don't believe in the fire.
"You think those are real?"
"That must be gas."
Suddenly they notice the mountain of wood. They are shocked. They begin to believe. They start to use all their senses and notice other evidence: Sparks, smoke. Fake logs don't give off sparks and smoke.
Some will never believe. They go away insisting there must be hidden gas jets in the pit fueling the flames. No: Every year this fire is started the old-fashioned way, with kindling and without lighter fluid. The Park Service crew tends the fire around the clock, adding a big load near midnight that will burn until dawn. They are proudly, even showily, obeying an ancient law, one as old as the universe, one indifferent and invulnerable to technology: If you do not feed the fire, the fire will go out.
The rest of the year, steel plates and 14 inches of sod and turf cover the pit, so you don't know it's there. But come 11 p.m. on chill December nights, the people are still gathered around the bonfire, absorbing and reflecting.
Now the electric lights on the National Christmas Tree and the nativity scene shut off. The exhibition is closing for the night. The last song has Andy Williams declaring: "It's the most wonderful time of the year."
The fire pilgrims turn away from the glow to face the dark and the cold. Wending home they notice something that makes them smile: It has been so long since their clothes smelled of wood smoke.