By Jonathan Tomick
The greatest gift I’ve ever given was also the most anticlimactic: an engagement ring.
It wasn’t anticlimactic because my then-girlfriend-now-wife declined my request for her to marry me. Rather, I’d decided that a proposal for marriage shouldn’t be one of life’s many surprises, so months before popping the question, I told my then-girlfriend-now-wife, “I will propose when you look me in the eye and tell me you’ll say ‘yes.’”
So when I finally did propose, I had (almost) zero doubt of what the outcome would be. Yet, I was still a trembling, sweating, nervous wreck. It’s the closest I’ve ever come to feeling how the little drummer boy must feel.
“Little Drummer Boy” is the only Christmas song I have a genuinely emotional response to. Don’t get me wrong: I like Christmas music. It’s festive and fun and helps me get into the Christmas spirit. But at least once each year, “Little Drummer Boy” makes me cry.
Like, stop in the middle of baking Christmas cookies and embrace the catharsis I’ve been staving off for months sort of cry.
For the longest time, I thought it was just the simplicity of the story. A little boy who has nothing else to give shares the one thing he does have: a song. I mean, what’s not to love about that? It tugs on every romantic heartstring years of Christmas stories have conditioned me to have.
But I’m a 33-year-old man who has never experienced poverty or been unable to purchase gifts for my friends and family. Why does “Little Drummer Boy” continue to make me feel so vulnerable I consistently weep upon hearing it? And when I reflect on the story, why do I think about the evening of my engagement and the nervousness I felt despite feeling (almost) certain about the outcome?
The answer is “Little Drummer Boy” doesn’t tell the story I thought it did.
I thought “Little Drummer Boy” was a Christmas version of the widow’s offering, the parable from the Gospel of Mark in which Jesus watches as people give offerings at the temple. After several rich people throw in large sums of money, a poor widow drops in two small coins. Though the value of her offering is far less than others, Jesus tells his disciples her gift was in fact the greatest because she gave all she had.
The story of the little drummer boy can be interpreted similarly: “I have no gift to bring,” the lyrics say, so the pint-sized percussionist asks Mary if he might play a song for the baby Jesus. Despite having little, the boy offers all he has.
But the little drummer boy doesn’t have nothing to give. The song’s young speaker qualifies the line “I have no gift to bring” with the next: “that’s fit to give our king.” In other words, it’s not that he has no gift, it’s that he has no gift he thinks is worthy to give the Christ child. His challenge, then, is not whether he can find something to give, but whether he can overcome his own insecurity and feelings of unworthiness.
Now that is something my pre-proposal self can relate to. As I fumbled through the last of my preparations, the question I fretted over wasn’t, “Will she say ‘Yes?’” It was, “Is she really going to say ‘Yes’? To me?”
While proposing to my then-girlfriend-now-wife isn’t something I do every day, I do struggle daily against feelings of self-doubt. I compare my gifts and talents to other people’s. I consistently judge theirs to be the finest and mine to be lacking. I consistently pack up my proverbial drumsticks and think, “I could use a little more practice.”
But the little drummer boy doesn’t do that. He plays anyway. He plays his best. And the baby Jesus smiles.
Few, if any, of the gifts I give this Christmas — or any Christmas — will require me to think about the part of me that is uniquely blessed by my Lord and Savior, the part of me that is so essential to my being it beats like a drum in the back of my mind: Pa rum pum pum pum. Rum pum pum pum pum.
Maybe that’s okay. Maybe that’s too much to expect more than once or twice in a lifetime — a proposal, a marriage, a vocation. Each Christmas, though, “Little Drummer Boy” makes me wonder how I honor our newborn king. Do I offer my gifts and talents with the excited, trembling nervousness of a young man about to propose, or do I hold back? Do I question the worthiness of the gifts God has blessed me with, or do I play with them?
We already know how Christ will receive our gifts. The challenge “Little Drummer Boy” poses is not, “What gifts will the Christ child accept?” but “Are we courageous enough to give our dearest, most coveted gifts back to him?” After all, he’s the one who blessed us with them in the first place. He’s already told us he will accept them. He’s already smiling back at us.
Jonathan Tomick is a writer and educator based in Baltimore, Maryland, where he lives with his wife, son and lightsaber collection. Follow Jonathan’s writing at jonathantomick.com.