Growing up Catholic in a small midwestern town meant the traditions of our most universal holidays were a mix of sacred and secular. Easter came not only with the solemnity and pomp of Lent and Easter Mass, but the joy of bunnies and baskets of jelly beans and pastel boiled eggs. Halloween surely meant costumes and voluminous bags of treats, but the prayers and patronage of All Saints’ Day that followed were also demanded. And, of course, the big ticket item, Christmas, began with Advent calendars and candles lit during the four weeks before, to be accompanied later by a house festooned with Santas, reindeer, and every kind of snowman, snowflake, and Christmas tree.
Christmas also meant carols: the holy kind— “Oh, Come All Ye Faithful,” “Joy To the World,” “Oh, Holy Night”—and the not-so-holy—”Frosty the Snowman,” “Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “Jingle Bells,” and the rest. I loved them all. The lyrics inspired every range of holiday spirit, the harmonies evoked joy in shared vocal expression, and the melodies stirred emotion and nostalgia whenever heard. That remains true even now.
But there was one certain carol that touched my soul like no other. The almost mournful tone, the somber melody with its repetitive “pa rum pum pum pum.” When “The Little Drummer Boy” began playing in the rotation of stacked Christmas records, my siblings and I would respond almost universally: we’d stop whatever we were doing and start singing along, a chorus of voices in honor of Christmas and that little boy with a drum.
Why this one song over any other? I don’t know, but to this day it gives me a shiver of nostalgia.
So it was with great delight when, three years ago, long after record players were retired and we’d gone from albums to cassettes to CDs to iTunes to streaming music, my brother showed up at our holiday celebration with two vintage LPs of this beloved song; the original recordings, with the memorable album cover, sung by the Harry Simeone Chorale.
Just looking at that cover brought back so many poignant and visceral memories, but it was listening to it (on an accompanying CD!) that transported both my brother and I back to our little house in Illinois, with its warm rooms decked in Christmas finery and the gaggle of siblings leaping about, singing “pa rum pump pum pum” full throttle.
Starting that year, I began using one album cover as part of my own Christmas decorations; the other I brought to my mother’s room at the Alzheimer’s facility where she lives, bedazzling her room to remind her of family Christmases and the song that was a favorite throughout our growing up. When she saw the album cover tucked amongst the basket of her other decorations, she squinted her eyes and asked, “What is that picture there, the one behind the snowman?”
I pulled it out and showed it to her. “Tom found it; it’s the album cover for our favorite Christmas song, ‘The Little Drummer Boy.’ Do you remember?”
She said she didn’t, but, then, she doesn’t remember much of anything from the past these days. I just smiled and said, “No worries, Mom, maybe it’ll come to you later,” as she sat back in her wheelchair, enjoying her rather large chocolate Santa. Yet, as I was cleaning up, packing ribbons and red paper into my bag, I slowly started singing: “Come, they told me…” and in her scratchy, dissonant, but always-enthusiastic singing voice, she suddenly popped up in her chair, eyes bright, intoning loudly and in perfect time, “… pa rum pum pum pum!”
It seems some things never completely leave you.
Back at my own house, as I listen, once again, to those pitched voices and the vocal drumbeat droning rhythmically behind, I can’t help but be filled with the ache of nostalgia: remembering my father, who made backyard ice rinks, and “Bishop” punch, and every Christmas so special; remembering the excitement and creativity of my ten siblings, who turned every holiday into an event, and, mostly, remembering my once-vibrant mother, who loved music, loved Christmas, and loved hearing her children sing. My brother and I will be sure to get over to her room during the holiday to sing a few “pa rum pum pum pums” for her. In harmony, all the verses, as we always did…
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
Being the contemporary girl I am, I wanted to share both my beloved original version, as well as a most modern one by a favorite group of mine. Enjoy… and Merry Christmas!
The original version:
And for those who’d appreciate a little extra Drummer Boy trivia, there’s always its page at Wikipedia!
Visit www.lorrainedevonwilke.com for details and links to LDW’s books, music, photography, and articles.