Every year a bunch of friends of mine all over the country and beyond play the “Little Drummer Boy” challenge: who can go the longest, maybe even get to Christmas, without hearing that song? With stores, streets, and the radio a minefield, at least one person posts daily, “I’m out.” I’m still in. I did hear it once, but a friend ruled that you get a “get out of jail free” card if you’ve endured a hearing of “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas,” which I had done. But really, I don’t know if it’s fair for me to play the game, because—and I have admitted this to my friends—I actually really like“The Little Drummer Boy.” I think it expresses the heart of Christmas.
If you don’t remember the song, he hears about the birth of “the newborn king” and is invited along with those who are giving their finest gifts. He says to the baby, “I am a poor boy too . . . I have no gift to bring / That’s fit to give a king.” But he asks, “Shall I play for you?” and when Mary assents, he begins to play, and the baby Jesus smiles at him.
Sure, it’s a little mawkish. I’ve always thought there was something off about the line about the ox and lamb keeping time—isn’t keeping time what a drummer does, himself? And then there’s the niggling detail that no one dealing with the sleep cycles of a newborn would really want the baby to receive the gift of a percussion concert—you wish the boy would play the baby Jesus a lullaby on his flute instead, or maybe knit a pair of booties. But that’s the point. His gift is his drumming. It’s what he has to give.
What beautiful thoughts: That whatever we have to give is enough. That what matters is not the expense, but the richness of love with which we give. That Christmas inverts our usual ideas of power and worth: the King of kings is actually the humblest of beings, a helpless infant. These truths have helped me stay focused on what matters, instead of getting lost in the whirl of shopping or caught up in worry about getting the right present for each person—even though I haven’t heard The Little Drummer Boy to remind me. Not yet.