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