Mary, Did You Know?: An Essay on Christmas Carols, Medical History, and Reproductive Politics
The Christmas season is a curious time for a historian of women’s health, abortion, and maternal politics: at its historical and religious core, the holiday revolves around the legend of an unusual pregnancy and a remarkable birth. The miracle of Christmas, in the Christian tradition familiar to many Americans today, is not only the birth of Jesus but his mother’s conception and her patient acceptance of her supernatural condition. The familiar holiday crèche we see on church altars, parents’ windowsills, and glowing on snowy lawns is in fact a delivery-room scene, with the baby and the triumphant mother always together at the center. While Mariah Carey, ugly sweaters, and peppermint everything may loom larger in our collective Christmas consciousness, images of pregnancy and dutiful motherhood lurk throughout the historical foundations of the holiday season.
Yet even in that historical context, Mary – arguably the most famous mother in Western history – holds a curiously ambivalent position. Michael Linton, writing for the conservative Christian magazine First Things, notes that the woman in whose body the whole mystery and power of Christmas originates is remarkably absent from the most beloved religious carols; in fact, in an analysis of 381 English-language carols, he finds Mary mentioned in only 27% – and then often obliquely.
Searching for an explanation for Mary’s miraculous invisibility in the Protestant musical tradition, Linton finds a simple historical answer: much of the music that has become established as “traditional” hails from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a time of notable anti-Catholic sentiment in the United States. Among the major sources of division between Catholics and Protestants is their relationship with the figure of Mary: Catholics revere her above all other saints and give her a prominent place in doctrine, prayer, and religious imagery; Protestants tend to view the veneration of Mary as a semi-scandalous displacement of reverence for God himself. So, as Linton argues, “Mary can’t be excised from the Christmas story completely, but in the carols she’s mentioned as little as possible, for fear of turning her into an object of cultic devotion.”
So Mary’s strange invisibility would seem to come down to the old hostility between Catholics and Protestants – a simple enough explanation. But Anne Stensvold, in her History of Pregnancy in Christianity, points to a history that may complicate Linton’s theory of Marian erasure. The story goes like this: in 1854, Pope Pius IX introduced the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, the tenet of Catholic doctrine which says that Mary was born without sin – “a radical step towards declaring Mary as more divine and less human than before.”1 Yet, Stensvold argues, this change in doctrine was not merely “an isolated and purely religious event.”2 In the mid-nineteenth century, medicine and religion alike were grappling with scientific discoveries that shifted understandings of conception, pregnancy, and childbirth: most notably, the discovery of human ova in 1827 by Estonian scientist Karl Ernst von Baer.
Why would the humble ovum cause a doctrinal problem capable of displacing Mary’s role in Christmas legends? It comes down to maternal agency and involvement: if the child in Mary’s womb was biologically part of her, rather than a temporary divine passenger, how could he be fully the son of God? In other words, “[s]cience made Christ the product of both mother and father, and hence less divine.”3 The dogma of the Immaculate Conception, a direct and knowing counter to modern scientific knowledge, solved the problem of Christ’s apparently compromised divinity by making Mary “an exceptional, pure, and perfect woman” – and, in fact, “less human.”4
Oddly enough, even though the doctrinal changes in Mary’s position in the church grew out of opposition to modern medical science, the medical establishment was engaged in the same period in a program of diminishing maternal agency and humanity. In 1857, just three years after Pope Pius’s announcement, Dr. Horatio R. Storer of the newly-created American Medical Association (AMA) headed up a campaign against the prevalent practice of abortion – mainly by midwives and other female medical practitioners. Historians including James C. Mohr and Leslie Reagan have argued that the AMA’s efforts to curtail the practice of abortion stemmed not so much from moral or religious objections – though certainly those were prevalent – but from a desire to consolidate authority with the (male) medical elite who made up the membership of well-to-do medical schools and societies. As doctors and lawmakers cracked down on abortion and contraception throughout the second half of the nineteenth century, the agency and humanity of mothers faded into invisibility, even as Mary slipped quietly out of Christmas carols and into the realm of doctrine and mystery.
The other night, I was driving home from work with the radio on, tuned to the holiday station that pumps a steady stream of Andy Williams and Michael Bublé into my car 24/7 from December 1 to December 25 every year, when “Mary, Did You Know?” started playing. For anyone not familiar with the song (one of the few religious songs to play on this station), here’s the gist: Kenny Rogers and Wynonna Judd, of all people, ask Mary if she understood the divine nature of her child, who would go on to “save our sons and daughters,” “rule the nation,” “give sight to a blind man,” and so on. This song – which, I can attest, has enjoyed great popularity in evangelical Protestant churches since its release in 1996 – seems to be a notable exception to the traditional Mary-less carols Michael Linton analyzed.
But I’m not so sure. As I listened, I got more and more frustrated, because there’s a very easy answer to Kenny and Wynonna’s question: yes. According to the legend, Mary did know. She was not a blind vessel for the child of God, but an active and willing participant in his birth. Luke chapter 1 shows us Mary discussing her condition with a female friend (also pregnant, with John the Baptist) and reflecting at length on the miraculous event in which she played such a crucial role. Yet in Christmas carols, even today, she is silent or absent; at best, she is innocent — in every sense of the word.
In our own historical moment, many of the same factors that influenced the dogma of the Immaculate Conception and the AMA’s campaign for abortion and contraception laws are once again converging. We see reproductive rights under threat in the face of an unpredictable Republican administration, a religious establishment that feels attacked and oppressed, and an apparent rift between science and Christianity that can seem as deep as the one that drove Mary into the realm of the divine in the 1850s. The friction of these forces in America can often be felt most deeply in connection with topics such as reproductive rights, maternal agency, and the linked spiritual and biological status of the unborn.
It’s a messy tangle of politics, religion, and medicine: one that hinges on intensely personal stakes and defies easy answers. But what better time than the Christmas season to ponder all these things?
Stensvold, Anne. A History of Pregnancy in Christianity: From Original Sin to Contemporary Abortion Debates. New York: Routledge, 2015.
Mohr, James C. Abortion in America: The Origins and Evolution of National Policy, 1800-1900. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.
Reagan, Leslie J. When Abortion Was a Crime: Women, Medicine, and Law in the United States, 1867-1973. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.
- Anne Stensvold, A History of Pregnancy in Christianity: From Original Sin to Contemporary Abortion Debates (New York: Routledge, 2015), 114. Return to text.
- Stensvold, History of Pregnancy in Christianity, 116. Return to text.
- Stensvold, History of Pregnancy in Christianity, 118. Return to text.
- Stensvold, History of Pregnancy in Christianity, 118. Return to text.
R.E. Fulton earned a master's degree in American History at the University of Rochester in 2015. Their master's thesis dealt with popular texts on abortion written by physicians in the mid-19th century, and previous research has focused on science fiction publishing in the mid-twentieth century. A student of medical historians who vowed never to become a historian of science, Fulton is now fascinated by questions surrounding history, medicine, print culture, feminism, and popular science.