Ready it or not, it’s the Christmas season — and it’s fitting that one of the first bits of new music honors the woman who made it all possible.
It’s true that, on balance, Catholics spend a great deal more time thinking and talking about — let alone praying t0 — Mary, the Mother of God, than your average Protestant or Evangelical.
But especially at this time of year, the enormity of the idea that a (probably) teenage Jewish girl from an obscure town in a dusty corner of the Roman Empire held the Creator of the Universe within her womb and brought Him forth as an infant into the world in a humble stable just can’t be ignored.
In 1984, at the request of his pastor, Texas-born gospel singer, songwriter and comedian Mark Lowry wrote the lyrics to the song “Mary, Did You Know?” as lines for a script for a Christmas play (now also a book by the same name). Twelve years later, musician and songwriter Budd Greene took Lowry’s series of questions to Our Lady and put them to music.
The questions include:
Mary did you know that your baby boy will give sight to a blind man?
Mary did you know that your baby boy will calm a storm with his hand?
Did you know that your baby boy has walked where angels trod?
And when your kiss your little baby, you have kissed the face of God.
The song has been recorded by more than 30 artists, from Kenny Rogers to Cee Lo Green to Clay Aiken, but earlier this month, it took a shimmering and haunted turn when the a cappella group Pentatonix — Kirstie Maldonado, Mitch Grassi, Scott Hoying, Avi Kaplan and Kevin Olusola — released its video for the song, one track on its new “That’s Christmas to Me” CD.
It features the vocalists in a cave, perhaps reminiscent of the Roman catacombs in which early Christians had to worship.
Hailing from Texas and California, the five members of Pentatonix originally came together a few years ago for NBC’s a cappella competition show “The Sing-Off,” which has become a Christmas-season favorite (the new season premieres Wednesday, Dec. 17 on NBC).
After winning the competition in 2011 and scoring a recording contract, Pentatonix has continued to be purely vocal, powering through creatively arranged covers of pop and classic songs, along with original material. In 2012, the band released “PTXmas” (re-released in 2013 as “The Deluxe Edition,” with two additional tracks), including “Little Drummer Boy,” and the Advent hymn “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” with lead vocals by Kaplan, who sings basso profundo (but whose range stretches to tenor) and does percussion.
With two Christmas albums to their credit, you might wonder whether the members of Pentatonix are believers (although that’s certainly no prerequisite for performing Christmas music). Well, beat boxer and vocalist Olusola, who also plays the cello, identifies as Christian; while Kaplan has discussed his Jewish heritage.
In an article at Beliefnet, Olusola said, “I’ve always been technically a Christian, my Dad and my Mom, they’re both Christians. They raised me in it so I’ve always known of God but it didn’t become real to me until college when I really started digging in on my own and realizing that everything I do, if I’m not focusing on the word of Jesus Christ, it doesn’t [amount to anything]. Christ, heaven, those are the things that are everlasting.”
Speaking to the Jewish Forward, Kaplan said: “I’ve been singing about Christmas and Jesus, because all of that in choral music. I love singing Christmas music; no problem at all singing that.”
But, be warned, there is one lovely but peculiar song on “That’s Christmas to Me,” an evocative cover of Fleet Foxes’ “White Winter Hymnal’ (the official video for which is a kind of stop-motion-animation fairy tale).
And here are the words, sung as a vocal round:
I was following the pack, all swallowed in their coats
With scarves of red tied ’round their throats
To keep their little heads from falling in the snow, and I turned ’round and there you go
And Michael, you would fall and turn the white snow red as strawberries in the summertime
While the band members have called the lyrics “basically meaningless,” fans have noted a sometimes “devotional sound,” as it’s called in an article in the U.K. Independent, to Fleet Foxes’ music.
But the same article quotes lead singer Pecknold as saying:
“My dad was quite critical of organised religion, so we kids were never scuttled out to church. I don’t know if there is a Judeo-Christian God, but if there is, I wouldn’t blame Him for everything that’s wrong in the world. I suppose music is a devotional vocation for me, and even if you’re not religious that thing of aspiring to some kind of greatness can be a very useful tool. When you hear pure devotion, though– like Brian Wilson aiming to honour God on Pet Sounds– it’s a lot more powerful than the average love song.”
Judge for yourself: