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Why Write Christmas Carols in the Zombie Era?

Public Domain

Joseph Bottum - published on 12/05/14

The problem with art in our time is, quite simply, the problem of disenchantment.

I’ve been writing Christmas songs over the past few years, and maybe for much the same reason that AMC fills the airwaves with its zombie-apocalypse television show "The Walking Dead"; why the CW has given us "Supernatural" for ten seasons; why Syfy has added "Z Nation," and Stephen King has increased his horror-genre fortune with CBS’ "Under the Dome"; why dozens of other programs and movies these days concern magic, science-fiction disasters, super heroes, and the occult.

The problem with art in our time is, quite simply, the problem of disenchantment. We need what we lack, here in late modernity — a living connection with the past, a density of reference, a thickness of vocabulary, and an external world that glows with cosmic meaning. All the lyric writing I’ve been attempting in recent years has been an effort in my poetry (such as it is) to reach back into the thick past. And with the Christmas songs, in particular, I’ve also tried to reach toward one of the last few enchantments left in our public world. Or, as I put it in “Some Come to See the Lord,” one of this year’s newly recorded carols in my two-song EP Grace and Gladness:

Some come because as children

they sang old Christmas songs.

That’s the happy past. And yet, too:

Some come because as children

they suffered hurts and wrongs.

And that’s the sad past that claws at us still in the present:

The wounded, poor, and shattered — 

the heartsick, lost, and battered:

Some come for life restored.

Some come to see the Lord.

We seek the manger because Christ is the solution to the damage in our souls. But we also seek the sleeping child because, like the Magi, we realize that Christ is a solution — a cosmically meaningful, metaphysical rich, supernaturally powerful moment in this otherwise thin world.

Think of it this way: If meaning comes only from us — if meaning arrives only via the human outlook on the world — then there is nothing meaningful in itself. Oh, sure, we have great emotions and great hungers. That’s part of what we want art to express. But what outside ourselves is inherently worthy of having our great feelings attached to it? In a thin world, nothing is enchanted. Nothing is naturally weighty, meaningful, infused with power. Nothing is rich, thick, and alive with the kind of true beauty that art needs to survive beyond a few generations.

Throw in a few zombies, however, and you’ve got a world, for screenwriters and viewers, that thrums with all the deep meaning of the apocalypse and the end of days. Toss in some vampires, ghosts, and demons, and you have a world in which evil and good have palpable presence.

In other words, a hunger for a metaphysically rich, supernaturally thick, emotionally wrought world is written across our age. And Christmas still provides it to artist and audience. Or, as I put it in “Joy Will Keep,” the other of this year’s newly recorded carols:

Dreamers seek the source of dreaming.

Wise men search for wisdom’s throne.

Christ has shown the cause of meaning:

truth itself at last made known.

That’s pages and pages of St. Bonaventure, compressed down into a quatrain.

All art ends up saying something about the artist. I have, I know, a tendency to fall into sad funks and self-despisings, and if I find the mad festival of Christmas an answer of joyous unselfconsciousness, well, who would be surprised to discover that all this appears in the lyrics?

Across the fields in winter,

the snow lies soft and clean.

Across the fields in winter,

a new-made world is seen.

We will escape the sadness.

There lives now grace and gladness, 

and peace beyond the sword —

this child who is the Lord.

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