In surveys of least favorite Christmas songs, there’s one that makes every list: “The Little Drummer Boy.” Some might even call it annoying; along with “Do you Hear What I Hear.” Although, I kind of like both of them.
“The Little Drummer Boy” is imaginative fiction, there’s nothing biblical about it, of course. Essayist and novelist, David James Duncan, grew up loving this song. It was his brother’s favorite carol, a brother who died as a child, making it all the more meaningful. That is, until one day, he stopped and looked at the song. There’s something wrong, he writes, with the song’s basic premise. “Here is some uninvited urchin, standing right next to the cradle of a newborn baby, banging away on a drum. Have any vindictive relatives ever given a child in your home a drum? Pah rum pah pum pum is an extremely kind description of the result. Yet, out of reverence and love, this unidentified ‘poor boy’ marches up to the manger of the (probably sleeping) Christ child and bangs the hell out of his drum.” He says he can picture the infant Jesus’s eyes, “so innocent and new that they were unable to focus, startling wide O-pen at the sudden banging.” He could “picture God the Father wincing On High, wanting to cover His beloved son’s ears, make the donkey kick the Drummer Boy senseless, send in the wise men to stop the banging, only to sigh, swallow His anger, and think, ‘Nope. These are the mortals. [This is what they do.] This is Earth. This is my beloved son among the mortals on Earth. Let the drummer boy drum.”
Every December, Duncan says the first time he hears “The Little Drummer Boy” -- especially when it’s sung by kids – the chills run from my spine to my eyes, sometimes spilling over as the truth of the fiction hits home. “That it’s a “poor boy, too” – same as Jesus, or me, or you: the truth of our spiritual poverty gets me every time.”(1) Then he smiled at me pah rum pah pum pum. From a stable. That’s where God chooses to be born, among brutal ear-pounding human noise, as one of us. Pah rum pah pah pum. Hope is born in the most unlikely places, when a stable sufficed for the throne of a boy born to rule the world with the scepter of love.
It’s the same world that tirelessly tries to pound out a cacophony of sounds to muffle the cry of this baby. In 1914, the guns pounded the fields of France and Belgium with a ferocity and cruelty never before witnessed by humanity. On Christmas of that year, the war was about five months old; it was supposed to be finished by then. It took almost four more Christmases before it was finally over, “the war to end all wars.” This year marks the 90th anniversary of the Armistice. For almost 90 years, on Christmas Eve, Gordon McCrea pulled out an envelope brown with age and took out the letter inside (the paper was coming apart at the folds). It was written by his father to his mother and he turned to it every Christmas Eve.
It’s dated 29th December 1914, Ypres, Flanders, Belgium. The rains that fall seemed to be endless, filling the trenches along each side of No Man’s Land. Despite bailing and pumping, the bottom of the trenches were soup-like mud, knee-deep. “The misery and stench is beyond anything I could have imagined,” he wrote. Overwhelmed by the inhumanity he witnessed, he longed to be home for Christmas. But he tells what happened.
Starting on the 23rd December through the 25th, all along the front, from Verdun to Dunkirk, the British spotted lights at the tops of the German trenches. Then the Germans lifted up trees with candles on them and heard Fritz singing, “O Tannenbaum, O Tannenbaum…” The Brits thought it was a trap. But they just listened as the Germans celebrate Christmas. “When their singing stopped, several of us, accompanied by a harmonica, sang, ‘Away in a manger, no crib for a bed…” Cheers and applause came back from Fritz’s trenches.” On Christmas Eve at midnight, Gordon writes, “we heard Fritz singing ‘Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht, Alles schläft, sinsam wacht.” And the English joined back, “Silent Night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright.” “Then the miracle: men without their rifles climbed out of our hell-holes and we met each other in no-man’s land, singing the same Christmas song in two languages. Cigarettes, chocolates, meerschaum pipes, pictures were shared…” More men moved into No-Man’s Land. The Germans and English began to celebrate together. On Christmas Day they played soccer. It never happened again. The British High Command reprimanded the officers for allowing fraternizing with the enemy.
What a sight that must have been. For that first Christmas the Royal Family sent a gift to every soldier on the front. It was called the Princess Mary Tin – it contained a greeting card, some cigarettes, chocolate, pencil, and pad. I actually have one – on the lid it reads, Christmas 1914. This is like a holy relic for me; I like to imagine that whoever received this tin witnessed that Christmas truce.
Gordon wrote, “I don’t know how long this ‘Peace on Earth’ will last, but it as if the angels thronged the air over Flanders, and grim earth, hard as iron, sufficed to house God’s Christ once again. Not just in churches and warm homes where lighted trees and presents await good children, but God declared that Flanders muck and stench would suffice. And for four days the guns fells silent for 100 miles. All was calm, if not bright.” (2)
The good news of this night, my sisters and brothers in Christ, is that stable-places still suffice, whether the stench and much of a manger, the stench and muck of Flanders fields, even the muck of our lives, every place where the bleak midwinter tries to smother our joy, God’s Christ continues to be born there.(3)
On this Christmas Eve, we gather on this corner of the kingdom, surrounded by a world filled with people hungry for good news, many are just plain hungry and worried and afraid and scared. With the economy tanking, unemployment rising, anxiety seems to be in the air, almost palpable. I can feel it and can see it. So many loved ones and friends are sufferings from so many illnesses this Christmas, mourning the loss of loved ones, of friends, of broken marriages, missing their children. Poet, Royce Scherf speaks for many this night, when he wrote:
The heart is tired at Bethlehem,
No human dream unbroken stands;
Yet here God comes to mortal hands,
And hope renewed cries out: - “Amen!” (4)
The world can be oh so dark and the bleakest places are never very far away. It’s said that the night is darkest just before the first light of dawn. We are here to claim that in the darkness a new light emerges. In the bleakest of places, a new hope is born. In a world of senseless violence, at the tip of Caesar’s spear, a different peace comes to us from Bethlehem. In every lonely, troubling place, in every absence and place of deepest ache, there is a presence who fills every empty place with a peace and comfort and even joy that the deepest pain cannot take away. For God will not be pushed out of life. God will not be silenced. God seeks to be born among us – with us – within us, no matter what or where. For in the bleakest places and times, the light of Christ continues to be born and born again and again; the light of Christ continues to shine and shines even in the darkness, and the darkness shall never, ever over come it – ever. Ever!
(1)David James Duncan, God Laughs & Plays: Churchless Sermons in Response to the Preachments of the Fundamentalist Right (Great Barrington, MA: The Triad Insitute, 2006), 12-15.
(2)Letter cited in a sermon by Terry Schoener, “A Stable-Place Sufficed,” in Stories for Christmas Eve Telling (2008), 54-57.
(3)"A stable-place sufficed," taken from Christina Rosetti's (1830-1894) text used in the carol, "In the Bleak Midwinter."
(4)Text and music of Royce J. Scherf, arranged by Robert Scholz in the piece, “The Hills Are Bare at Bethlehem.” CD: Christmas at Saint Olaf, Volume VI – What Wondrous Love, 1993.