My third grade year was interrupted by a move to a new state and a new school. My family unpacked in Alabama at the very beginning of December 2001, and Johnathan and I were put in a local public elementary school. I had stepped out of a one-hallway private school into a web of hallways lined with classrooms and filled with throngs of other children. I spent most of my time there trying to be invisible.
It was Christmastime. Our classroom was decorated with small trees and handmade ornaments, and there was often a soundtrack of faint holiday tunes in the background.
I don’t remember her name, but my first teacher was a tall woman. Plump, with dark gray hair and a grandmotherly demeanor. She filled the room with herself, and though I remember her as a kind and jovial woman, I also remember having a vague sense of fear associated with her presence.
One afternoon, The Little Drummer Boy came through the stereo system. She perked up and announced with enthusiasm that this was her favorite Christmas song. She turned up the volume and chimed in with a loud contribution to the rum pum pum pum lyric.
Because that was the first time I remember hearing that song, and because it was tied so closely with a negative experience, I have shuddered nearly every year since when I hear the familiar chorus rumble through any speaker. It has always been one of my mother’s favorite Christmas songs as well, but for years I have made her turn it off whenever it cycles through the car radio. I hated it too much to listen all the way through.
But this year, it has been a favorite.
I don’t remember when it happened, where I was, or whose version I was listening to, but I remember hearing the last verse as if for the very first time:
(For the sake of clarity and my sanity, I’m going to remove the “pa rum pum pum pums.”)
“Shall I play for you
On my drum?
The ox and lamb kept time,
I played my drum for Him,
I played my best for Him,
Then He smiled at me,
Me and my drum.”
I heard it and thrilled at the idea of the child Jesus smiling with delight at this little boy and his drum.
The character isn’t biblical. There is no historical reference to document this little drummer boy’s existence. No likeness of him was ever taken.
But I can see him.
His face is dirty and his feet are bare on the cool desert earth. His little hands are plump with newness and wrapped around two splintered sticks. His tangled hair falls just above the bridge of his nose. And he carries a drum. Something makeshift crafted out of found and forgotten things.
I see him in the doorway of Joseph and Mary’s home. As the magi move further into the room, his faint shadow is pushed across the threshold by the light behind him. And he follows its course until it lands on the face of the baby they walked all this way to see.
And looking at this small face, he hears the words of the prophet Isaiah rattling through his brain:
“For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”
This is Him, he thinks. This is the One we have been waiting for.
He looks to his left then to his right, noticing the shine reflecting off of the costly gifts brought by the magi. He looks down and sees the sticks in his hands. It isn’t the same, not as valuable, he thinks, but he has nothing else. He must give something. He is face to face with the promised Messiah, the One who came to rescue. The One who came to bind up broken hearts and make all things new.
He must give something.
“Excuse me, Mrs. Mary,” he whispers timidly. “Would it be okay if I played for Him?”
The young mother nods with a kind smile upon her lips, and he takes a deep breath, raises his sticks, and brings them down upon the drum.
The sound reverberates off of the walls. His rhythm is crooked, and it is more noise than song, but he doesn’t hear. He isn’t performing; he is praising.
When he is through, the boy bends forward for a better view of the child before him. Eyes lock and the baby Jesus, delighted by the sound, smiles at his new friend.
And in that moment, everything changed.
I think I see the little drummer boy so clearly because his heart looks so similar to mine. I know what it is to stand in the presence of the Savior and scramble for something to give in gratitude. I know what it is to remember God’s promises and be overwhelmed with a desire to praise.
And I know what it is to feel your heart nearly explode with joy when the Light of all the world looks at you and smiles.
This Christmas, my bare and dirty feet land on the cool hay covering the stable floor, my grimy hands grasp the edges of a rough manger and my chin hooks over the side to catch a glimpse of my Savior. His face is turned toward me; He sees me and the heart He came to save.
And then He smiles at me.