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Old familiar carols play

by
17 December 2021

Gregory K. Cameron continues his Advent series, exploring the scriptural background to, and history and tradition that have grown up around, a character associated with Christmas. It is illustrated by the author’s adaptation of a work of art

Gregory K. Cameron

THE members of the Holy Family, the saints and angels, the animals, the shepherds, and the wise men have all arrived to offer their homage. But wait, who is that in the corner crying? It appears to be a little drummer boy.

 

I Scripture

THE wise men must be allowed their entourage, of course, but there is no mention of a little drummer boy among them in scripture. However, while this particular character is a newcomer, music already appears in the nativity story with the song of the angels.

This, with the story of the drummer boy, who was left behind by the magi, can draw our attention to the importance that the Bible places on music in the worship of God. Music — the talent of the human being to weave the sounds of an instrument or voice into a form of beauty expressed by harmony, pattern or rhythm — is deeply evocative of human emotions and of our deepest spiritual impulses.

Music has been used in divine worship for as long as human memory can tell. Miriam, the sister of Moses, we are told, sang a song at the deliverance of Israel at the Red Sea; David, we have learned, was an expert at the harp and in song, and many of the Psalms were attributed to him. From Isaiah’s vision of heaven, in chapter 6 of his prophecy, through to Revelation, with its frequent references to worship in heaven, song is a vital component in the praise of the Most High.

 

II History

CHRISTIAN engagement with the story of Christmas has been augmented by a lively imagination and a vast hinterland of legend. The little drummer boy has quickly secured his place in people’s affections. He appears originally in a song written in 1941 by Katherine Kennicott Davis, an American songwriter. This was made popular when it was first issued as a recording in 1951 by the Trapp Family Singers (who themselves were later popularised in the film The Sound of Music), and the song featured at the top of the Christmas music charts in different versions for many years afterwards. Today “The Little Drummer Boy” has joined the list of favourite Christmas carols.

The song draws on an old and pleasing Czech story. After the wise men had visited, it recounts, they left their gifts and departed. Only then do Mary and Joseph become aware of a small figure crying in the corner of the stable. It is a little drummer boy, part of the entourage, who has been left behind. Mary invites him to play for the infant Jesus, who rewards him with a smile.

For some, this may be pure schmaltz. For others, the most humble of gifts sincerely given are part of what makes Christmas truly Christmas.

 

III Tradition

FOR centuries, the celebration of Christmas has been accompanied by the singing of carols. The oldest carol for which we have a record is “Come, Redeemer of the nations”, written in Latin in the fourth century by Ambrose, the church Father. Originally, the word “carol” referred to any seasonal song, and there were Easter and Pentecost carols, as well as carols for Christmas. Gradually, though, the tradition of carolling at Easter and other times faded, while carols at Christmas became an indispensable feature of the feast.

In a carol, songwriters could give free rein to their devotion. Some carols from earlier times emphasised the Christmas narrative (“The First Nowell”); others addressed doctrinal questions in a more oblique manner (“O come, all ye faithful”). Some were rich in symbolism (“The holly and the ivy”, “I saw three ships”), and yet others told stories that are frankly bizarre (“The Cherry Tree Carol”, which has the infant Christ from inside the womb performing a miracle for his hungry mother when Joseph is uncharacteristically uncharitable).

Later carols began as works of poetry (“In the Bleak Midwinter”), and others from the legends of popular saints (“Good King Wenceslas”). “The Little Drummer Boy” takes its place in this rich tradition.

 

IV Faith

WE HAVE already noted the distinctive human ability to probe and measure the rules of creation in science, but, alongside the sciences, recognition also needs to be given to the arts; for, if science aids us in understanding the natural world, then the arts give us insight into the world of emotion, and of human spirituality.

One of the benefits of a faith in God is a sense of the source of these remarkable human abilities to plumb the depths of the world, and to organise sound or colour or shape to create something meaningful and new. There is someone to be grateful to for these gifts.

One of the words coined by the Reformation theologian Philip Melanchthon was “synergy”, a word that he used to indicate the way in which the human soul could resonate and work with God in the healing and salvation of humanity and nature.

It is perhaps a word that we as people of faith could also use for the creative process. God invites us to use our minds, our imaginations, and our senses, to build on the world of nature, and create new things that speak of beauty, meaning, or mystery.

Let us pause to reflect on the wonderful ability of humanity to enrich creation through the arts, and let us thank God for whatever gifts of self-expression or talent that he has given to us by way of hobby, craft, or industry.

 

Lord God, you spoke and all things came into being. We thank you for the creativity that you have given to humanity to echo your creation in the production of works of art and beauty. Help us to see what we each can create with the talents you have placed in our hearts. Amen.


The Rt Revd Gregory K. Cameron is the Bishop of St Asaph.

This is an ex­tract from his An Advent Book of Days: Meeting the char­acters of Christmas, pub­lished by Canter­bury Press at £9.99
(CT Bookshop £8.99).

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