Christmas Song nr. 14: Mary’s Boy Child by Harry Belafonte

A few years back now, probably the last time my immediate family was gathered on Christmas, my Grandmother sid she had a surprise for us. She brought us into the room where she kept the radio, a spare bed room where she would listen to it in peace and quiet. She turned on the radio and on came one of those shows were listeners can write in and request songs. My Grandmother never mastered the art of emailing so she had most likely sent a handwritten letter stating her wish, while also motivating it.

The host of the show said that he had received a letter from my Grandmother and that this particular tune reminded her of when her grandchildren were small and would sing it by the Christmas tree every Christmas. The song happened to be Mary’s Boy Child by Harry Belafonte. This seemed odd to us at the time seeing as we had no memory of ever doing this, but she was convinced and beamed as the tune played. My Grandmother has since passed away and to this day the song, that I had no connection to or even enjoyed previously now has a very nostalgic vibe. The gentle timbre of Belafonte’s voice and the lilting music in the background will now forever be part of that final Christmas my family spent as a unit.

The song was written in 1956 by Jester Hairston upon request for a new Christmas song by conductor Walter Schumann. Hairston used a calypso tune he had written before, then called He Pone and Chocolate Tea, and put new words to it. It has since then been recorded and rerecorded several times and even been translated into a variety of languages. Harry Belafonte, the American calypso singer born in 1927 was the first to record the song in 1956 and it is the most iconic version.

The tune describes the miracle of Christmas and what the season is about, according to Christians, and manages to be a love song as well as a holiday tune. Because of the memories it holds for me personally and the iconic status of it Mary’s Boy Child is number 14 on the Christmas List of Songs.

-Andrew Tobias


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