An Appreciation Of CHRISTMAS AT GROUND ZERO - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

Home Top Ad

Post Top Ad


Alexander Wallace shows some love for the greatest Christmas song ever written on the subject of nuclear omnicide.
Whenever December rolls around I post "Weird Al" Yankovic's Christmas at Ground Zero in music threads on various alternate history fora and say “this is the ideal Christmas song. You may not like it, but this is what peak performance looks like.” That’s a slight exaggeration; it’s definitely my favorite humorous Christmas song, whereas my favorite ‘serious’ Christmas song is a different one, albeit one that also has something to do with nuclear war.

When I was in my alma mater’s ballroom dance club, multiple times for the Christmas dances I asked that this song be played as a foxtrot (in retrospect you could also swing to it, albeit slowly for that dance). It was never played, most likely because they found my sense of humor demented, because it oftentimes is (one of the nicknames for the captains in the club my senior year was ‘the mom friend;’ conversely I was ‘the weird uncle friend,’ a role which I relished. I also recall playing this song for younger cousins at a family Christmas gathering, and my uncle thought me insane).

In many ways, Christmas at Ground Zero is a demented song; the central conceit of a cheery holiday tune set to footage of nuclear hellfire takes a certain sort of mind to come up with. Fortunately, I am of a certain sort of mind that quite enjoys such lunacy, if only in the sense that T. J Kong enjoyed riding the atomic bomb to his own destruction.

Why does such a bizarre juxtaposition work? Why does it amuse us? I think the answer ultimately is through the incongruence between the saccharine fifties sound of the song and the macabre scenario it describes. There’s both horror and hilarity seeing Jack Frost at your window and then shooting him.

In America in the eighties (when Weird Al made the song), the country looked back to the fifties as ‘the good times’, because in the fifties the United States bestrode the world like a colossus, having come out of World War II as the only major economy on the planet that had not been utterly devastated. The economy was booming, the culture was innovating (rock ‘n roll would do that), and the future looked bright. This is the time that Weird Al looked at without rose-tinted glasses, and emphasized a part of the period that nostalgia tends to gloss over.

Nostalgia for certain time periods always implies a certain narcissism in regards to everyone not in the narrow circumstances of the nostalgic. The fifties in Europe were a time for rebuilding the husk of the continent, and east of Munich and Berlin it was a time when the promises of the Allies were shown to be worthless as Stalin’s jackboot suffocated them. Japan was occupied, its cities having been immolated by firebomb or by atomic bomb. China was rebuilding after a world war and a civil war, and was marching into the largest famine in human history. Even in America, that decade was not kind to those who were not white, certain civil rights cases like Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka notwithstanding.

It’s the sword of Damocles of nuclear omnicide that hung over the decade, and the ones that succeeded it, that the song chooses to exploit. The fifties were a time of atomic bomb drills in schools, and the first time in human history that the species had to confront its own mortality. This was felt the world over; Ireland established its civil defense organization out of fear of nuclear war. It was something that an audience in the eighties would have found resonant; the Cuban Missile Crisis and Able Archer and the 1983 scare were in living memory.

The eighties themselves were a time when the President of the United States saw it fit to joke about annihilating Russia when doing a mic test (the Soviet armed forces were on high alert for half an hour after hearing of that remark). American nuclear policy throughout the Cold War displayed an unnerving willingness to destroy the species. For one span of time, it was in American plans that, if war were to break out with the Soviet Union, the bombs would also level China, and vice versa. This can be read of in sordid (but grimly fascinating) detail in Daniel Ellsberg’s fantastic book The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner, one of the scariest books I have ever read. No horror story can begin to compare with the truth.

Winter festivals exist wherever there is winter; I suspect that it’s to affirm life in a time of the year that is so hostile to human survival when human existence is mere hunting and gathering. Christmas, secularized as it is from Christian and before that pagan religious practice as we now celebrate it in the West, is an affirmation of life. It’s an affirmation of the comfort of family and the smiles of children and the pleasure in sugary treats and the spirit of giving. It’s a holiday about celebrating the beautiful things about being human, in a season when it was once so hard to be human.

All comedy works on incongruity, like the expectation of the chicken having a reason to cross the world contrasted with the lack of a reason given for such a strange desire. The incongruity of Christmas at Ground Zero is the contrast of the beauty of Christmas with the nightmare of nuclear omnicide, wherein all the splendor of the world would be reduced to powdery ash. It’s the humor of the gallows, made in a time when it felt like humanity’s neck was in the rope. Thirty-some years after the song was written, the nuclear rope was swapped out for a climate rope, but the scaffolding remained. When oblivion feels imminent, sometimes all you can do is laugh.

Alexander Wallace is an alternate historian, reader, and writer who moderates the Alternate History Online group on Facebook and the Alternate Timelines Forum on Proboards. He writes regularly for the Sea Lion Press blog and for NeverWas magazine, and also appears regularly on the Alternate History Show with Ben Kearns. He is a member of several alternate history fora under the name 'SpanishSpy.'

No comments:

Post a Comment

Post Top Ad