This time of year, I see plenty of reminders, on social media and on signs in front of churches, that “Jesus is the reason for the season.” And not for no reason. In a society of rampant consumerism and individualism, Christmas has become a massive occasion for the spending and making of money. Even Americans who consider themselves good and faithful Christians engage in the orgy, even if it is alongside a religious observance of the holiday. And in a pluralistic society that makes room for people who follow other religions than Christianity or no religion at all—and, significantly, for the legions of people who identify themselves as Christian but aren’t particularly religious—the holiday’s cultural trappings have become a part of our common civic religion. In other words, anyone and everyone can put up a tree and exchange gifts without being expected to think about, much less embrace, the historical event that the holiday commemorates. While the season does tend to bring out our impulse to altruistic service and our desire to connect with family and friends, the references we make to “peace on earth” and “goodwill toward men” this time of year tend to be watered down, generalized, shorn of their origins. And this secularization of the holiday is the essential ingredient to its commercialization, to making it the time of year when many retailers make it or break it. Let’s be honest: It’s not just that it’s easy in the midst of holiday shopping to forget about the historical origins or larger meaning of Christmas. Rather, the problem is that such forgetfulness (or, at best, postponement of reflection until, say, Christmas Eve, after all the presents have been bought and cards sent and parties attended) is the only way to make a religious occasion into an economic juggernaut.
I think that’s why hearing “The Little Drummer Boy” usually makes me tear up. Now I’m the first to admit that I’m a sap. I was even before we had children, but now, my heart plowed deep through interactions with two amazing little boys, it really doesn’t take much to get me all weepy. And I should also acknowledge that there’s a lot of really great Christmas music out there, from classical to hymns to popular, some of it really moving.
All that said, for years this one Christmas song has struck me as particularly powerful. Not only is the music itself stirring, but the lyrics are highly subversive of the materialistic approach to the holiday. Taking a cue from the story, recounted in the Gospels, of angels heralding the birth of the Messiah to shepherds in the neighborhood of Bethlehem, the song tells of a “poor boy” who is summoned to greet the “newborn king” but has no gift to offer him. Instead, he plays his drum. Mary gives permission, the animals in the stable keep time, and the Christ-child smiles in appreciation. It is a sparse, simple story, and most of the lyrics aren’t even words at all, just the drum’s refrain, “pa rum pum pum pum.” If it weren’t so elegantly profound it would border on the saccharine.
(I’ve recently become quite partial to this 2013 version, by the a cappella group Pentatonix. It is musically pretty stunning, and somehow the unadorned human voice—the “sacred harp” that every person possesses, in the language of America’s most significant a cappella tradition—fits the story perfectly. And I should point out that the song is also a memorable element of Season 1, Episode 10 of The West Wing, “In Excelsis Deo” (1999). I submit that if you watch the whole episode and get through to the end—with scenes of a boys’ choir singing that song in the White House interwoven with those of the burial, with full military honor guard, of a homeless Korean War veteran at Arlington National Cemetery—without shedding a tear, then you have a hard, hard heart and there’s just not a thing I can do for you!)
What makes the important truths in this song stand out all the more is that was written in 1941 and first recorded in the mid-1950s, when the modern consumer culture and feel-good religion were just coming into their own. While the language of the song refers unambiguously to the origins of a specific religion, I read it as an expression of universal themes at the heart not only of Christianity, but of all the great religious systems of humanity.
Here are a few lines of the song, and some of the implications that jump out at me:
“Come, they told me/A newborn King to see/Our finest gifts we bring/To lay before the King.” When he hears of the birth of the king, the shepherd boy stops what he’s doing and rushes to greet him. This speaks to the core of the religious endeavor: for the individual to seek out the truth, to be ever alert for the call of the divine, and when the Prophets and Holy Ones appear, to turn in the direction of God’s voice and allow oneself to be moved by it.
“Little Baby/I am a poor boy too.” The shepherd boy is poor, and as the last word of the line conveys so poignantly, so is the Messiah. Indeed, the founders of the world’s great religions have by and large been devoid of earthly power and wealth. They haven’t sought material comforts, and they have instructed their followers in no uncertain terms to follow suit.
“I have no gift to bring/That’s fit to give the King.” The boy has no physical gift to give and feels unworthy. Often, the first people to respond to the divine summons are those who, like the Divine Educators themselves, have little in the way of material wealth. They become heroes, giants to history, not primarily because of their material achievements but because of the moral and spiritual transformation they undergo. Ultimately, the only gift any of us can lay at the feet of the king is our heart.
“I played my drum for him/I played my best for him/Then he smiled at me.” The boy gives what he has, which is from his heart and costs nothing, and the World Redeemer is pleased with his gift. (At least as pleased, we might assume, as with the priceless things offered by the “wise men from the East” alluded to in the first line.) The point of religion is to call forth the best in human nature. In harmonizing our will with the will of God, each individual finds the highest expression of his or her talents and capacities and a sense of true purpose in life. This phenomenon takes on collective expression, too, as religions in their heyday have been a potent source for humanity’s greatest advances in the arts and sciences, governance, and social welfare.
The tradition of gift-giving at Christmas is, as I understand it, essentially a replaying of this scene, when the original visitors offered the best they had to the newborn Messiah. And there is certainly nothing wrong with recalling, through reenacting, such humble acts of devotion. But the key term there is “humble.” To me, the words of “The Little Drummer Boy” cut through the deracinated, materialistic spectacle that Christmas in the United States has become and point to the simple, profound core of religion the world over: the love that binds human beings to their Creator and, consequently, to each other. Especially in a society as diverse as ours, I think we could use a lot less holiday consumption and a lot more discussion about what religion really is.