A few thoughts about Christmas songs, the related theologies, and traditions.

A powerful lesson happens when we have understandings of the past informed by evidence: the realization that most things considered “traditional” or as having lasted forever are actually new developments–often in the past century, sometimes in the past decade or two. Of course, this doesn’t detract from the power associated with the mores and rituals and the related creations of usable pasts. 

Christmas, as generally currently celebrated in the United States, is roughly a century old. Many of our classic Christmas songs developed during the World War II era. Other aspects, such as the Elf on the Shelf, are much newer. Collectively, celebrations in the United States today combine traditions, many of them pagan, from far coldest parts of northern Europe, the Middle East, and for some families, present-day Mexico. 

This also applies to the theology connected with aspects of the Christian celebration of Christmas. Theological notions that Mary was a virgin and that Jesus was the son of God, for example, were first developed and added decades after they had all died and slowly refined over a dozen centuries. And they continue to be written and rewritten. 

On this note, the newish song “Mary, Did You Know?” (1991) caught my attention yesterday. 

Side note: Much of Christmas music (in small doses) is very nostalgic. Some of it, lyrically and instrumentally, is “aesthetically,” very good. But then there’s the issue of the many implausible (and inaccurate) mythologies it memorializes and perpetuates. Yet, listening to and studying such provides important exercises for cultural analysis and for understanding other texts that inform contemporary theologies.

“Mary, Did You Know?” is a great example of a more contemporary theological text. As this article points out, this song contradicts extant foundational texts, texts that say Mary did know, but this song portrays women as ignorant, submissive, and weak. Such characteristics are perpetuated and reinforced as Biblical mandates by Fundamentalist Christianity, even though these dehumanizing “rules” for women largely originated in theological (and non-“theological”) texts outside the collection of works called the Bible. 

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The song does everything it can to take away all of Mary’s agency and humanity. “Mary, did you know” is stated nineteen times. Does Mary know anything? Can Mary do anything? According to this song, no. 

The song is also “creepy,” as defined by Adam Kotsko is his Creepiness. If such were “true,” the message and following actions would be overwhelming for mortals. Additionally, I have previously written about how Rape Culture provides important and useful ways in which to analyze the Christmas story. In “Mary, Did You Know?,” Mary does not know she was pregnant with God/the Son of God. That’s (a kind of) rape. Even in theological texts that say Mary did know or Mary was asked, consent is not possible because of the “age,” knowledge, and power differentials (see Sex and Harm in the Age of Consent.)

Dr. Andrew Joseph Pegoda

Categories: Thoughts and Perspectives

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5 replies

  1. “Elf on a Shelf” reminds me of the trick the parents played on their young kids–a film showing an elf dancing on their bed last night. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7umNQjoaBvM
    The kids’ response when they saw that film the next day makes for a truly cherishable viewing.

    On another note, it seems that there is some evidence that Mary was actively involved in the decision to go to Bethlehem to give birth and to choose a cave nearby when their was no room in an inn. She was aware of the politics of the day when Messiah beliefs were very prominent and influential. I have heard some say things that suggested she wanted her son to be considered as the Messiah and that led to her decision to go to Bethlehem, so that his birth would fulfill at least one of the predictions. But of course, at that time, she could not possibly have known she was carrying a boy baby.

    The claim that a census was being taken doesn’t hold a strong enough reason to require them to make that trip. (Incidentally, that trip is considered to have been taken in the Spring, not Winter). Elaine Pagels tells us about the Gospel of St. Thomas and the Gospel of Mary which were left out of the New Testament by the Council at Nicea (325 CE). Thomas suggested this scenario and the Gospel of Mary was by Jesus’ mother. It appears she was a very active member of the early Christian church, and was a very powerful woman for her time, influencing decisions like meeting in the catacombs, having regular meetings with bread, their congregation being made up of primarily women in many cases. It seems that the early Christian church may not have survived without the women. Obviously, things changed a great deal before the Council at Nicea.

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    • Oh, yeah, I forgot to include this: the Gospel of Thomas also suggests that Mary had been raped by a Roman soldier, and had become pregnant. Joseph was one of few men at that time willing to marry such “spoiled goods.” The birth in the cave may actually have been her own decision because of the shame that might have surrounded her. The trip to Bethlehem may also have been a method for getting away from a town that knew of her shame, as well.

      I am always impressed by the alternative explanations for biblical events. Quite a few years ago, a preacher told of the interpretation by some women in a bible study class about the story of Lot leaving Sodom with his wife and children. He had been told not to look back or they would be turned into a pillar of salt. His wife did, despite that warning. These women suggested there may have been a really good reason, like Lot was molesting his daughters and that was why he did not want to give them up to the Sodomites who demanded them. Lot’s wife was so ashamed of his treatment of his daughters and the high likelihood that his behavior would continue in their new life elsewhere, that she decided to commit suicide this way. This is an explanation that is so different from what we get taught but which clearly was a logical explanation for the mother’s behavior. I strongly suspect that at least one of the women discussants may have had a mother like that, who chose to abandon the family rather than face off with the father over his behavior. A similar scenario was written into the script of the PBS special, “Call the Midwife” last night. My PBS station will be repeating that broadcast on Wed at 1 am. Many stations repeat broadcasts at other times during the week.

      When a man takes over the lives of his women in a very patriarchal society, often the only choice a woman has is to get away by any means necessary. That might come in the form of suicide because the shame of abandoning her children is just as bad as choosing to stay and bear the pain.

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  2. Interesting thoughts both from blogger and commenter.

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