I’m truly surprised to be saying this, further surprised to feel it: I enjoy the Christmas season. It’s true. I love the decorations and the lights. I like the way in the early mornings, while it’s still dark outside, just the white lights around the mantle softened by the garland, give the living room a peaceful glow. I love wrapping presents and one of my favorite things is wrapped presents under the tree; though this year, with a four-year old in the house, we will have to forego that vision until Christmas morning. But the four year old! I forgot how much magic there is with Christmas, my son is 21 so it’s been many years since we’ve played Santa or watched the Christmas specials. But this year there is so much of it and, honestly, it’s just fun. Buying and stashing presents, watching and recording Christmas shows, looking at Christmas lights when we’re driving around, the constant talk of Santa and the kids “all over the World.” Don’t get me wrong, I could do without the daily conversations and meltdowns of “I want it to be Christmas right now,” and “waiting is hard” battles but life is yin and yang.
And I like the music. Go ahead, get your eye roll out of the way now, but I really do. Maybe it’s that the songs are familiar and I can sing along heartily. After all, I’m a singer. What, you’re surprised? Most of us would say, “I can’t sing,” or, “I’m no singer” and make an apology for singing along out of tune or off-key. Not me. I sing. Granted I couldn’t make a living at it. I might not even be asked to sing in the choir at church and maybe sometimes when I used to sing the cats would come and sit near and make that weird sound cats do when they’re sick. Well they could’ve been singing along or they could’ve actually been sick because they’re both dead now. Either way, I am a singer; that is, I sing.
My first memories of singing Christmas carols are with my Mom and Dad at our little church in Geneva where I grew up. Not Geneva Switzerland, please. Geneva, Pennsylvania, population 200. The UM Church is where we attended as a family until my early adolescence and I enjoyed the services, especially around Christmas. Which hymns were to be sung were announced by placing their page numbers in the wooden board hanging on the front wall of the sanctuary. Such a fancy word for our little church, sanctuary, really it was just the main room, different from the foyer and the stairwell to the basement. But on the front wall of the sanctuary to the far right was the board with its numbers announcing the pages of hymns (and last week’s attendance and offering) and in the center of the wall a picture of Jesus, who, I was always struck by the fact, did not have on shoes.
But shoes or not we sang those Christmas carols to him. Virginia Pardee would play the organ or the piano and the whole church fellowship would sing and rejoice. I remember once after we sang all the assigned numbers, the pastor asked for members to choose their favorites. My Mom asked to sing O Little Town of Bethlehem. I felt so proud that the whole church was singing a song that my mom picked (you’d have thought she wrote it!) and to this day, some 38 years later, in my mind it’s still her favorite song; she is, at least as far as Christmas songs go, frozen in time.
I didn’t pick a song for so many reasons. I couldn’t: I wasn’t brave like my mom. I was a child. I wasn’t worthy to pick. It wasn’t lack of desire or for not knowing what I wanted–it’s never a lack of knowing what I want that keeps me from, it’s a hundred other voices that keep mine quiet. But my choice was spoken by someone: The Little Drummer Boy. This is not my favorite Christmas song. I have not frozen myself in time like I have my Mom. But I have come to appreciate my eight year old self. I have come to appreciate her strength, her will, her perspective, her determination, her innocence and her sheer tenacity. She really liked this song, and for good reason.
This song was about a kid. All the other songs we sang in church around the Christmas holiday were about Angels, and Nights, and Towns, and Kings of the Orient and used words like “virgin” and “herald” and “Emmanuel.” But The Little Drummer Boy, this song was on my level: A boy, his drum, gifts, ox and lamb (And yes, I knew what an ox was because I grew up reading and watching Little House on the Prairie). The repetitive pa rum pum pum pum that I could tap my foot to or tap the pew in front of me, softly though, I didn’t want to make too much of a ruckus, it was church after all. But even more than that, it was the song that spoke to me. It was that I related to this boy and that feeling of not having something good enough to offer. Even writing this I am wondering, am I just thinking that I felt that way then? Am I just looking back from my adult view assigning these heavy feelings onto my eight year old self? Absolutely NO. I do not underestimate the young and their ability to feel deeply. Profoundly. I experienced it with my son and am experiencing it now with our four-year old grandson. The distinction to make is that while the young may experience and feel life deeply and profoundly they may not understand or be able to make sense of it always in all ways. They, we, take our cues from the adults in our lives and sometimes get a little help along the way. I mean help in the sense of empathy or recognition; that is, a song or book or poem or line in a movie or show that speaks clearly what we feel or think in a murky, cloudy way.
For me, it was this Little Boy, a drummer no less, that I felt connected to. This nameless drummer, for a moment in time, created a space where I didn’t feel alone. Someone out there felt the same as me. This was a big deal to me then, adopted, detached, not sure of the world or my place in it. “Then he smiled at me.” You know what that line made me feel? I didn’t know what it was till just recently, with the help of what is my favorite Christmas song: a thrill of hope.