During those dark December evenings playing Christmas songs in the living room with Mom and Nanny, there would come an inevitable moment when a sussurant, steady, chanted beat would begin from the radio’s single speaker. If we’d been talking, we’d stop. I would stare fixedly at one thing while I listened. Sometimes it was be the ceramic nativity scene that my sister Sue had made for Mom over the years, piece by piece. Sometimes it was one of Mom’s decorative container candles, with Christmas scenes printed on the outside in colors translucent enough to reveal the glow within. I’d just stare and listen in reverence.
“Throom, boom, room, boom,” went the men keeping the time, before the women began harmonizing on the lyrics, telling a simple story from the perspective of a humble child. The story wasn’t part of any Scripture, but it imparted a beatific message having to do with unity, love, and giving. It spoke to the need to care for the marginalized, and it felt like it required attentive listening, time after time. This was an essential three minutes of reverence, and at times I would lose all thoughts except that reverence, my consciousness lost in the simple, droning beat. The song exuded spirituality. Those three minutes were transcendent, and every time I hear the song today, I’m immediately taken back across the years, miles, and memories to the warmth of that living room.
When Harry Simeone was under contract for his first Christmas album in the late 1950s, he discovered an obscure song called “Carol of the Drum,” which he re-titled and arranged for the album. It became popular over the next few years, hitting U.S. charts and drawing a following. I know many people who can’t stand listening to it, finding it monotonous and “stupid.” Sure, there are a couple of odd lyrics, but the story is as pure as it gets — an innocent child, possessing nothing, follows three men on faith to give the only thing he can to a baby he believes is there to save him. Yep, the Harry Simeone Chorale’s “The Little Drummer Boy” is nearly perfect. Divine, even.
Come, they told me (pa-rum pum pum pum)
Our newborn King to see (pa-rum pum pum pum).
Our finest gifts we bring (pa-rum pum pum pum)
To lay before the King (pa-rum pum pum pum, rum pum pum pum, rum pum pum pum)
So to honor Him (pa-rum pum pum pum)
When we come.
Baby Jesus (pa-rum pum pum pum),
I am a poor boy, too (pa-rum pum pum pum).
I have no gift to bring (pa-rum pum pum pum)
That’s fit to give our King (pa-rum pum pum pum, rum pum pum pum, rum pum pum pum).
Shall I play for you (pa-rum pum pum pum)
On my drum?
Mary nodded (pa-rum pum pum pum).
The Ox and Lamb kept time (pa-rum pum pum pum).
I played my drum for Him (pa-rum pum pum pum).
I played my best for Him (pa-rum pum pum pum, rum pum pum pum, rum pum pum pum).
Then He smiled at me (pa-rum pum pum pum) —
Me and my drum.
- Aselin Debison, “The Gift“
- Bing Crosby, “Do You Hear What I Hear“
- Harry Belafonte, “The Gifts They Gave” (aka “The Friendly Beasts”)
- Daryl Stuermer, “Little Drummer Boy“
Demons of Christmas past, present, and future.