I’m sorry if you really like it, but I think Mary, Did You Know? is the least biblical, most sexist Christmas song ever written.
Least biblical because if you reeled off the 17 patronizing questions contained in the lyrics of that song to the real Mary, she might have thrown a rock at you.
The real Mary, who had tramped heavily pregnant 90 miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem to give birth in a stranger’s home, and who then hauled her child 400 more miles to safety in Egypt, well, she wasn’t one to be trifled with.
More than that, she was under no illusions as to who she had just given birth to. Listen to the song of praise she sings upon discovering the enormity of the task that has befallen her:
My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant. For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name. And his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever. (Luke 1:47-55)
Can you imagine asking that warrior-woman, “Mary did you know that your baby boy would save our sons and daughters?”
Of course, she did!
Don’t sing, “Did you know that your baby boy is heaven’s perfect lamb? / That sleeping child you’re holding is the great I am.”
She knew alright. She knew because the angel who appeared to her told her:
“And the angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’ And the angel answered her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God.’” (Luke 1:30-33)
Stop singing, “Mary did you know? Mary did you know? Mary did you know?”
She not only knew, she willingly consented to the angel’s remarkable calling, saying: “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38).
But not only is Mary, Did You Know? unbiblical, it’s pretty sexist too.
One of the most common expressions of everyday sexism is the infantilization of women. That is, the treating of grown women as though they’re children. Infantalization is a means of controlling women and perpetuating the myth that without a man (a father figure), they are incapable of caring for themselves or exercising autonomy.
And that’s kinda what this song does to Mary. It treats her like a clueless child.
The golden era of infantilization was the 1950s when television shows like Father Knows Best and I Love Lucy portrayed women as ditzy and childlike, while men were seen as wise and moderate.
In I Love Lucy, the main character, played by Lucille Ball, was routinely treated like a child by her husband, which included patronizing and demeaning language and, in some cases, taking her over his knee and spanking her. All to a laugh track.
This, of course, was era when advertising reinforced these stereotypes like this:
But still today, it’s still nothing to hear a 25-year-old woman referred to as a “girl”. Similarly, some people use the term, “girlish” to positively describe women, as if being youthful and immature are attributes women should aspire to. I guess, some people just prefer them to remain girls — gullible and childlike.
And nothing makes me cringe more than a grown woman referring to her father as “Daddy” (I’m looking at you, Ivanka).
All that to say, I reckon Mary, Did You Know? might be the most infantalizing hymn ever written.
We regularly ask children, “Did you know…?” — Did you know your daddy played football at high school? Did you know the LA Dodgers used to be based in Brooklyn? Did you know President Trump used to be a reality TV star?
And we use that slightly higher register when asking kids questions. You can just hear it when the songwriter asks Mary, “Did you know that your baby boy has walked where angels trod? / When you kiss your little baby, you kiss the face of God.”
As we’ve already established, she knew! But I can’t help but feel as though these questions are somewhat gendered.
Could you imagine a song asking Abraham 17 times if he knew he’d be the father of a great nation? Would we sing “David, did you know you’d rule the kingdom of Israel?” We know both men knew this because God revealed it to them. But to the woman, Mary, we sing a condescending Christmas song asking her if she had any idea what on earth she was doing.
In Margaret Atwood’s novel Cat’s Eye, the main character, controversial painter Elaine Risley, becomes obsessed with Mary. She paints a rather strange portrait of Mary, depicting her as a woman in an overcoat with the head of a lioness. Describing her painting, Risley says, “If Christ is a lion, as he is in traditional iconography, why wouldn’t the Virgin Mary be a lioness?… My Virgin Mary is fierce, alert to danger, wild. She stares levelly out at the viewer with her yellow lion’s eyes.”