Sporadic and light flurries meant snow blower sales trickled in more slowly this time of year at Ipaco, and work seemed to creep along at an unbearably sluggish pace. This made for terribly long and exhausting days. I pitied my poor boss who had graciously allowed me to remain on during the slow season but struggled to find things for me to do on a daily basis. As time dragged, my boss, Daryl, and I would often pass some of it by shooting the breeze about everything from his river cruise trips down the Rhine to what we’d heard that day on NPR. While we both preferred to stay busy, this happened to be a delightful alternative.
During one of the most recent of our “philosophical” downtime discussions, the topic du jour was Christmas songs. Tis the season, amiright? Obvious classics, like “Silver Bells” and “O’ Holy Night” were mentioned, and we each shared the version we liked best. It was all going splendidly when, seemingly out of nowhere, Daryl popped the question I had prayed would not be asked:
“What about “Mary Did You Know?”
My blood turned as cold as a reindeer nipple, and a shiver ran down my spine. It was a question I absolutely dreaded and had learned to avoid at all costs. “Did he just ask me if I liked “Mary Did You Know?” I thought to myself incredulously. This was the worst possible way this conversation could have gone, but I was trapped and knew I would be forced to answer. It was like I had accidentally stumbled into a Donald Trump rally, and without realizing where I was, struck up a nice conversation with someone about something innocuous like what panda bears eat, only to have the lights dim, Sarah Palin come on stage, single me out individually—spotlight and everything—and ask me if I was ready to “Make America Great Again.” I either lie, and tell her, “sure, dude,” or stand up for myself and get rhythmically beaten to death by an angry mob while Lee Greenwood’s “Proud to be an American” blares over the loudspeakers above.
You see, I love the song “Mary Did You Know.” Not just like, or even like-like. I really, really, really love it. But this is not common knowledge, nor have I traditionally shared this fact with anyone other than those who have already bravely outed themselves as fans of the tune for fear of losing my life. On too many occasions, I have been publicly mocked and shamed for this preference, and I am sure many of you secret fans of the song know exactly what I am talking about, too. Songs like “Mary Did You Know,” “The Little Drummer Boy,” “All I Want for Christmas is You,” and Justin Bieber’s “Mistletoe” carry with them a stigma— attached by the Christmas-music elites— that only plebeians choose to sully themselves with these types of “contrived” or “cheesy” carols.
Don’t get me wrong—I believe there are such things as “bad” Christmas songs. How about the 1944 ode to date rape, “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” for example? Viewed through a modern lens, the song is clearly creepy and disturbing.
The constant badgering of the song’s uncooperative female character by a demanding and relentless male counterpart who just won’t take no for an answer eerily mirrors common attitudes present in rape culture. But even a song which is seemingly so cut-and-dry-awful has fans who make reasonable arguments for why it is, in fact, a good song and has withstood the test of time.
Last week at our family Christmas party I broached the subject of “bad Christmas songs” with my siblings and received a fairly predictable response. I should note, when it comes to Christmas songs, or music in general, my family aren’t lay people; the Pyfer clan are musical connoisseurs. My older brother, an accomplished music producer, was first to suggest that the “Little Drummer Boy” was the worst.
“First of all— ‘come they told me’— who told this kid to come?” he asked. “This kid walks into the stable with this sleeping baby Jesus and says, ‘I don’t really have any gifts to bring but…’ ‘BAAP! BAAP!’ and he starts banging on a snare drum.”
“But the baby Jesus smiles at him,” countered my Dad. “I actually really like that song!”
“Do you think a newborn baby would be smiling about that?” argued my brother.
Before I knew it, my entire family were debating the merits of each song they loved or hated. Each argument that was hurled back and forth was reasonable enough, and it was soon apparent there was no right or wrong answer to the question I asked. Finally, a consensus emerged: to each his own.
And while my family successfully navigated this touchy subject with relative ease, this was a rare exception. I vividly remember preparing for a benefit Christmas concert put on by some of my peers during my second year of college back in 2011-2012. Each of us that had been invited to perform was in charge of selecting one song, and little direction was given with the exception of choosing a song someone else wasn’t already singing. There was one other unofficial caveat, too: under penalty of being banished from future performances and openly ridiculed, we were not to choose “Mary Did You Know” as our selection.
As we sat around at one of our first group practices, I quietly and fearfully waited for the group of 20-somethings to finish their pretentious lambasting of one of my favorite Christmas songs while they drooled over the brilliance and sophistication of Sufjan Steven’s “Sister Winter”, which they would all perform as a group. I played along and settled for “Silent Night, a “respectable” and simple choice, and simply opted out of the back-patting group performance. It ended up being a wonderful evening with audience participation and everything, but I couldn’t help still feeling like crap every time it came on the radio. I resigned to the fact that “Mary Did You Know” and I would have to be kept a little Yuletide secret.
Yet, this was a secret that only grew more troubling to keep as the years went by. I mean, is there anything more inherently Grinch-esque than having to listen to a song about the birth, life, and atonement of Jesus Christ in hiding and shame? To hear the words “This child that you’ve delivered, will soon deliver you” and not think about my own daughter and unimaginable pain Mary must have felt at the foot of the cross— but instead feel embarrassed— was completely backward. The Christmas season is a time of celebration of what we love and enjoy most about life, not what we think is dull or unworthy of our refined and enlightened ear drums. I couldn’t live in fear anymore.
It was time to make a stand.
I realized I had been lingering in front of Daryl’s desk for an awkward amount of time now debating how I would answer his question. Beads of sweat accumulated on my forehead and my cheeks turned a bright, oh-hot-dang-mommy-got-caught-kissing-Santa-Claus shade of red. I took a deep breath inward, swallowed hard, lifted my chin and nearly shouted my response with pride:
“I happen to love “Mary Did You Know,” Daryl.”
“Me, too!” he replied with glee. “You have got to look up the Voctave version when you get home. It is really beautiful.”
I breathed a huge sigh of relief. I felt years’ worth of constant fear of derision and haughty contempt drip off of my icy heart as it grew at least three sizes bigger.
“I can’t wait.”