I was enjoying a beautiful August day at Barnabas Family Ministries on Keats Island, a bucolic fragment of Eden that has surfaced off the coastline near Vancouver, British Columbia, when I got that familiar knot in the pit of my stomach: only 153 shopping left until Christmas. More dire, though, was the fact that I hoped to write something festive and true about Christmas by October 15. How was I ever to find anything new to say about my favorite holiday when I had less than eight weeks to do so? ‘Tis the season to try to get someone else to do your work for you. Luckily for me, Carolyn Arends was also at Barnabas. Earlier this past summer, the Canadian singer/songwriter had been knee-deep in Yuletide joy as she completed work on her second full-length Christmas album. When I waylaid her for a little chat about her project – which she graciously supplied – I was able to glean fresh insights from her that would have otherwise eluded me. You see, of the thirteen songs on her new album, Christmas: The Story of Stories (October 2014, 2B Records), Carolyn wrote nine. You would have to walk many a mile (or kilometer) to find someone who has meditated more fully and fruitfully on the Incarnation and all its wonder than she. We found a place to sit, cracked open a box of After Eight Dinner Mints, and toasted the album with Diet Cokes. Carolyn brought the stories and perspective; I brought a questionable work ethic and a digital voice recorder; the following, interspersed with some lyrics and edited for clarity, is what came about:
O little town of Bethlehem, I think it is a lie/That you were still or dreamless on that first Christmas night . . .
Justine: When I listen to your songs, you seem to revisit a lot of themes, but with increasing depth, or complexity, or a slightly different viewpoint. I know that you have written a Christmas song for your church each year for many years. The narrative of Christmas in the Bible is basically two chapters in the Gospel According to Luke. How do you write a song from that every year? How do you face that?
Carolyn: I’ve been doing it for 20 years – which is a lot of Christmas songs – and I think that is what I like about the tradition. It’s an annual spiritual discipline of looking at the Story and saying, “What is the Story saying to me or to the people that are around me this year?” I hope in circling around and revisiting the same themes, it is going deeper. I think the last few years there has been more the vision that the story of the universe is happening in four giant acts: Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Restoration. And, I kind of see that little passage in Luke as a fulcrum or pivot point that everything hinges on, and that radiates out with a million implications that run backwards and forwards; and actually, that’s a lot to write about.
This is the Story of stories/This is the mystery of old/This is the Glory of glories/All that exists comes down to this: Newborn Baby Boy
Justine: That idea seems to fit in with the title song of the album, The Story of Stories.
Carolyn: Yes, it is very much about how that story fits into the Big Story. In fact, there is a quote in the song from Philip Yancey about God’s wanting His family back. [“In a nutshell, the Bible from Genesis 3 to Revelation 22 tells the story of a God reckless with desire to get His family back" (The Jesus I Never Knew)] Also, I am in a different place every year. Some years, I can’t wait for Christmas to come; and other years . . . I can. And so, I need to sing different exhortations to myself.
There is a vacancy right here inside of me/It’s been that way for quite a while/But there’s a blessedness in this great emptiness/If it makes room here for the Child
Justine: One thing that I found very interesting in your song list was the inclusion of an Advent song. What can you tell me about the song, Vacancy?
Carolyn: I grew up in a church tradition that did not follow the liturgical calendar, so it is only in recent years that I have begun to learn about the four Sundays of Advent. I love the idea of reminding ourselves that the world was waiting – and in some ways, we’re still waiting, and in some ways, He’s come – But, yeah, in the year that I wrote that, for whatever reason, whatever was going on in my life, I was not feeling very Christmasy, and I had this little bit of an empty feeling leading up to Christmas and I was working through that, praying through that, and I was reminded that emptiness is necessary to make room for the Truth that is coming. That is why that song talks about the blessedness in the emptiness and the longing that reminds us how all of Creation waited for Him to come, and now we are waiting for Him to come again.
Let it dawn on us like the morning sun/Let it chase our night away/Let it dawn on us: This is God with us/In the light of Christmas day
Justine: I know that the song Dawn on Us came out of a series of silly puns you were
torturing amusing your friends and followers with on Facebook and Twitter. I stayed up all night to see where the sun went. Then it dawned on me. Tell me about writing songs that surprise you.
Carolyn: Yes, it really delights me that what ended up coming out of that silly joke was a serious take on the Christmas story; and, it reminds me of what Frederick Buechner said about hearing the gospel as a “wild, marvelous joke” – it really is great news, and it should involve laughter. Also the song Vacancy: I was in a fairly blue space when I wrote it, but because I ended up writing it for ukulele, now it makes me really happy to play it. You cannot be unhappy on ukulele, right? So now when I play it, I am so happy – and it’s supposed to be my melancholy song.Friends that’s the reason we need this season/To help us remember, joy can still come/To a world often troubled and tragic . . ./So bring on the old Christmas Magic
Justine: Have you found inspiration in other unusual places? Quotes? Experiences? Readings?
Carolyn: You know, I’ve been a part of Vancouver’s Pacific Theatre’s Christmas Presence for several years. Well, there is one story that gets read almost every year – a nostalgia piece – by a local journalist who writes about his mother’s going over-the-top for Christmas; it’s very warm and sentimental. He talks about how his mom would go to the bargain basement of The Bay and find broken crystal ornaments and buy them for nothing and repair them, because she understood that things did not have to be perfect to be beautiful. At the end of the story, the writer reveals that he has cerebral palsy. Anyway, probably my current favorite song on the album is one called Christmas Magic that came out of that piece. We have a reaction to all the commercialism at Christmas and all the hype – and we do need to be careful about that stuff – but there is actually something beautiful about tradition, about having one time a year when we make the effort –imperfect as we all are – and try to come together and make something beautiful together.
May your Christmas season be merry and bright, and may your heart resound with comfort and joy as you live again the Story of stories, that pivot point of the universe when Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus turned into O Holy Night.If you would like more information about Carolyn Arends and Christmas: The Story of Stories, please visit her website (www.carolynarends.com). Merry Christmas!