I hate this Christmas song. I know what you’re saying. Hate is a pretty strong word. Why do I have to say hate? I think hate is a fine word. It’s a Biblical word. God is quite fond of hate. There are things worth hating: Nazis, Stalinists, and crappy Christmas songs. Chiefly among the later I rank the aforementioned “Little Drummer Boy”. It’s the worse Christmas song God ever allowed to be written. I could have equivocated there, but I went all in.
People acknowledge their distaste for music all the time. My daughters listen to everything but like nothing I love. I’m expressing my aversion for a time honored Christmas classic my wife really enjoys. These reflections aren’t for the health of my marriage. On the other hand, taste is subjective. Speech is still free. If you’ll hear me out, no pun intended, I’m prepared to be the villian on this one. But ultimately I think there’s a valid theological point to be made. Really, it’s not about the song itself. It’s about what the song implies about God and our relationship with God. For me, this is why “The Little Drummer Boy” is so far off track.
I’ll begin in the Netherlands. On May 13th, 1988 the great Jazz trumpeter Chet Baker jumped from a second story window of the Hotel Prins Hendrik in Amsterdam. His depression was exacerbated by his addiction to heroin and cocaine. Chet was a broken vessel. Despite his many flaws, for over forty years, he brought genius to the trumpet. Chet Baker, along with Miles Davis, defined west coast jazz. Baker was one of the most important musicians, composers, and performers of the 20th century. Imagine James Dean and Frank Sinatra, all rolled into one, playing a trumpet. That’s Chet Baker.
Baker made this contribution on an instrument defined by three valves. With those three valves, pressed in different combinations and the use of different facial muscles, dozens of note combinations can be achieved. It’s miraculous experience to watch well-trained jazz trumpeters find music where music shouldn’t exist. To the doubters and skeptics, it is possible to glimpse images of God’s presence inching toward humanities darker inclinations. Good music opens up the possibility of God’s intervention in our lives in new and unexpected ways. I’ve seen Doc Severinsen perform. A good trumpet player will make you believe in God.
What can we say about this mythical tale of a boy, his drum, rhythmic bovines, and the savior of the world? Not much. A drummer boy hears of the birth of Jesus. Somehow, he’s gotten it into his head, “our finest gifts we bring”. Who told him this? Has he met the wise men? No. Did he encounter a group of middle class Americans who said you can’t show up without a gift? No. He’s a first century child in Palestine. Why would he have our social hang-ups and emotional baggage?
The little drummer boy wants to deliver this gift because he believes the way to honor Jesus is to place or “lay a gift before” him. Again, where did he get this idea? It’s certainly not Biblical. Jesus never demands homage like Caesar, Herod, or some Persian King. If you think this is Jesus: YOU ARE WRONG! How did we end up making the assumption that the “Messiah”, the anointed one was a king in the traditional sense? Maybe we made it once, a long time ago. After our first mistake, could we stop spreading the misinformation and singing songs about how ignorant we are concerning Jesus’ identity?
Not only is the theology royally screwed up, the music is repetitive and mind numbingly bad. A new born King (a messiah), bring him gifts (which he doesn’t need or want), followed by pa rum pum pum pum. In case you missed his drum solo, let me do it again: pa rum pum pum pum. No variety, no musicianship whatsoever, just pum, pum, pum. Excuse me if I’ve not taken to heights of Divine ecstasy. The interminable chorus never seems to end.
The boy arrives at the manger and attempts to explain to the baby (God) why he doesn’t have a gift. Why don’t we build the theological foundation for God and guilt? Let’s teach the world, that from God’s entrance into the world, we have to appease God’s desire for things and stuff. Let’s become our own worst enemy by turning God into a reflection of our own self-interests and desires. We, according to the song, need to give gifts fit for a Messiah. News flash: that is an impossible task. No one can out give God! You cannot match the gift of salvation. You’re setting yourself up for failure, no matter cute your drumming sounds. God doesn’t want our gifts. God is more interested in our presence than our presents. I’d like to say that message is somewhere buried beneath the ox dung and repetitive drumming but I can’t find it.
He won’t give up on the drum. What is it with this kid and the drum? He wants to play his drum for the baby Jesus. How soothing is a drum for a newborn infant? Did he consider this? It may be his only gift but it’s wildly inappropriate for a baby. The mother, Mary, probably in a desire to get rid of this kid says yes. Play the drum, do what you came to do and leave.
Here’s where it gets weird. I know the whole thing has been strange but this takes the cake. “The ox and lamb kept time.” Were they tapping their hooves, wearing Wayfarers, and wagging their tales? Bovines have no sense of rhythm. The little drummer boy wants his gift to be justified so much he sees two unbelievable things: animals with rhythm and a baby’s smile in response to his drumming. If I confused every time my dogs were exposed to music with expressions of rhythm, I’d be on Instagram. The baby was so pleased the boy stopped playing an 18th century snare drum in 1st century Palestine he went pa rum pum pum poop; hence the smile.
The Little Drummer Boy is the worst Christmas song ever. Unlike Chet Baker, it drives me further from God. The theology is atrocious and the music is horrible. On behalf of churches everywhere still playing this garbage, I apologize.
2017 is going to be a hard year. We need to live our faith around the long game, which sees Advent as part of the larger expression of Christian faith. Christmas isn’t the last gasp of emotional complacency in the waning days of December. We need to be as close to God and each other as possible, without spiritual clutter blocking our access to God’s Good News.
Richard Lowell Bryant