"The Little Drummer Boy" crossed my path several times this Christmas season. Let's go with the most recent incident first. This happens to be the reading of the National Post, the Dec. 24th edition, which I got around to this morning. In this edition there we find an article discussing how Hollywood co-opted Christmas, titled "How the crooners conquered Christmas." In the article are found many interesting observations regarding some of the very popular so-called Christmas songs.
Robert Cushman here calls "The Little Drummer Boy" an Ersatz Carol. I think he nailed it. "Ersatz Carol" is good... very good. Well said. It tells us nothing about God or Christmas. It is mostly just cute.
Which brings me to the first encounter with the song, this season. It was on FaceBook. A video, seemingly gone viral, appeared in my thread several times. Beautiful young people standing somewhere outdoors on a big rock or small mountain, in a very bright daylight, sang the song with faces full of rapture. The video came with a tagline that advertised it as the most wonderful, happy video anyone had seen in ages. Personally, I was sidetracked by the shining faces of young adults. Something was incongruous about the scene. I think it was the lack of message together with the exultation. It didn't work. It was shot in Los Angeles, we found out, and here it seems we have Hollywood crooners gone slightly pious. (I don't want to put the band down; they are probably very nice and gifted people, who have worked very hard at their craft and this video.)
The next encounter was, when a post-modern, Quaker conversation partner sent me the link to this self-same video as a "peace offering". Seeing that our exchanges are always multi-layered and ambiguous, by his choice not mine, (I am usually trying to be ulta-clear), I didn't know what to make of "peace offering". I had once sent a Thoreau quote about freedom as a "peace offering". It turns out, in the long run, that there cannot be peace between post-modernism and Christian orthodoxy. It will always be a clash.
We had a fall-out over what the song should mean to someone like me, a stick-in-the mud, old-fashioned, school-marmish, Lutheran, inauthentic, addicted to my certainties and dogma--"bickering buddy". Whatever. I love him anyways. -- "The Drummer Boy" did not serve us, because if we all walk to the beat of our own drummer, we all "authentically" walk in different directions, (all the sheep that have gone astray...) and not at all in the direction of hearing what God has to say to us in the coming of his Son, our Lord. If we don't have Him, we have nothing really. Nothing that lasts, anyhow.
My most profound interaction with "The Little Drummer Boy", however, was while caroling at the hospital. We were making our way down toward the palliative unit when we stopped at a room. I didn't know if we were in the palliative section or just a room or two before. (It is a small hospital.) In any case, we elicited a song request and the patient asked for, you guessed it, "The Little Drummer Boy", which was not contained in our 70 song strong carolling book, even though it also holds many secular songs. We might have done it from memory, seeing that almost the whole song is "rapapapums", but nevertheless, we asked the person to choose another, since we were lacking the words. The choice went to another default, another perennial favorite-- "Away in the Manger."
"Away in the Manger" is often credited to Martin Luther, but I can tell you with certainty, that it is not a German song, at all. It is truly an English song. It finishes like this:
Be near me, Lord Jesus,
I ask Thee to stay,
Close by me forever,
and love me, I pray!
Bless all the dear children
in Thy tender care
And take us to heaven,
to Live with Thee there.
Except in our booklet it finished: "And fit me for heaven, to live with you there."
I was really glad we sang this song in the palliative or nearly palliative section of the hospital. "And fit me for heaven, to live with you there."
Now there is a Christmas song. It was very poignant to me and I caught the eye of another choir member who seemed to sense the same thing. We almost sang "The Little Drummer Boy" to a sick or dying person, but "Away in the Manger" came to the rescue.
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