They are wandering around the National Christmas Tree on the Ellipse, disoriented and stunned. Like George Bailey as if he'd never been born. Or Scrooge glimpsing Christmas future.
"I am so disappointed!" says Maribeth LaFave of Alexandria, Va.
"What happened to tradition?" asks Valerie Mayes of Harrisonburg, Va.
They feel as if they are hallucinating. Something is not right. Something is missing.
"It used to be right here," says Chris Marks of Ellicott City, Md.
He points to a patch of yellow sod in the cold shadows beyond the winking tree.
Like an unmarked grave, the sod covers the masonry fire pit where the national yule log used to burn every December. The National Park Service called it "Ye Olde Yule Log." For more than 50 years, it was one of the quirky miracles of holiday Washington.
Groundskeepers stoked the fire around the clock. They used a forklift to feed it giant stumps and trunks from trees that had been marked as "hazardous" and culled from national parks in the region. Tourists and residents would gather around the mesmerizing inferno, sharing stories with strangers, feeling uplifted as much by the smoky, sparky nostalgia of it all as by the sheer unlikeliness of such a scene in this locked-down, plugged-in world.
Is that really, really a humongous bonfire a few hundred yards from the White House? Yes, and welcome!
This year, it's missing.
The Park Service changed the layout of the stage and seating in President's Park, the section of the Ellipse where the annual holiday display is erected, says Scott Tucker, manager of the park. In the new design, the daily performers on stage appear against a picturesque backdrop of the national tree and the White House. In past years, the backdrop was the Commerce Department. The gravel road used to truck in fire logs also had to be shifted.
"The fire pit . . . didn't fit into the new site plan," Tucker says.
On opening night, Dec. 6, when a huge crowd came to see President Barack Obama and his family light the tree, a temporary seating area was placed over the fire pit, Tucker says.
Most evenings, however, that southern end of President's Park is desolate, but for the yule log pilgrims. They look lost as they scan the bare ground for the fires of yesteryear. They walk away, shivering.
Chris Marks stands at the park rail, peering into the darkness as if into the past.
"I was just looking to see if the pit is still there," he says. "I'm sorry to see it go."
"My parents always would bring me here as a kid," says Will Tees, 27, who lives in Arlington, Va., and still likes to seek out the yule log. "It's unusual for a city to have a fire that everyone can gather around."
Other elements of the holiday display remain the same. Mechanical trains chug around the big tree, while decorations shimmer on more than 50 smaller trees for each state and territory. There's a Nativity scene. Inside Santa's Workshop, a woman on duty in a Santa hat urges the many who ask about the missing fire to complain to the Park Service. The display continues through Jan. 1.
Tucker says the Park Service is fielding questions and complaints, including about 10 "formal inquiries" that members of the public have lodged with his office, as well as a larger, uncounted number of comments made to rangers in the park. He says the service will do an "after-action" review following the holidays. There is a chance the yule fire will be rekindled next year.
"We're considering all options," Tucker says.
Without the yule log, the park is not just metaphorically colder. Mayes says one of her fondest memories is how, when her three children were little, more than 20 years ago, the family would regroup and warm up by the fire. Then the little ones would dash off to explore the park some more. Now she's back with her eldest daughter, Aarika Malca, 28, and there's no respite from the chill. They guess they'll have to cut their visit short.
In the absence of a real fire, the pilgrims conjured many a remembered blaze.
"It sparkled," Mayes says. "You could hear it crackle."
The fire was so hot, "it would burn a beautiful purple-blue-orange," recalls Rob Tucker of Reston, Va. "How often do you get to see flames that color?"
LaFave and her husband, Ray, natives of Watertown, N.Y., have visited the yule log every year since they settled in the Washington area in 1998. They say they look forward to the fire more than the national tree.
"When we first came down here, we were surprised they had something like that," Ray LaFave says. "The wood smoke smell brings you back to nicer times."
"You know what it is?" says Maribeth. "It's the smell of Christmas."
"And the fellowship," says Ray. "We'd meet people from all over the country. That's a great place to do it, standing around the wood fire."
"We really want it back next year," says Maribeth.