Maybe it’s always been there, but a few years ago I started noticing a curious trend of Drummer Boy figures in Nativity sets. Had the carol become so prominent in our Christmas traditions that we were now including the recent and wholly fictional character in depictions of the scene? And why were so many of them oddly inappropriate to the setting? I was simultaneously a little weirded out and a little intrigued.
I’d always liked “The Carol of the Drum” at least a bit. It’s simple and not terribly authentic, but it’s got a decent message (“your best is your gift”) and anyway it’s catchy, pa-rum-pum-pum-pum. It was only written in 1941, allegedly based on a similar Czech song but the original (according to Wikipedia, anyway) has never been found. It probably has more to do with the carol “Patapan.”
It became hugely popular after the Von Trapp family (of The Sound of Music fame) recorded it and Harry Simeone recorded it two or three times, renaming it “The Little Drummer Boy.”
So I’d always enjoyed the song. But it bothered me. I mean really, who plays a drum for a baby? Most of my time around infants is filled with admonishments to make no noise, lest we wake the sleeping screamer. I know people who even travel with white noise machines for their young children. And how did the Wise Men happen across a renegade drummer from an anachronistic military band? Because that’s how the kid is usually depicted in illustrations. And where are his parents, anyway?
If you want skip ahead to the story, jump to the bottom of the page.
If you want to hear about the research, read on for a bit.
This has bothered me off and on for years. And then I found my brain starting to do something about it. Where did this kid with the drum come from?
So I began kicking around ideas for how it might have happened, a more historically plausible tale of the little drummer boy. The boy would be playing a more contemporary style of drum. And there would have to be a reason this kid would be alone to be picked up by the wise men.
And then, the wise men themselves….
Researching the Magi
The Magi are one of the most mysterious and intriguing parts of the Nativity story, and their journey and adoration was one of the earliest and most frequent subjects of Christian art. And their depiction and interpretation has greatly changed over the centuries of tradition.
So I began researching what we know of the Magi and who they might really have been, and it was fascinating. I’ve always been a bit of a history nerd. When we strip off years of added tradition about kings, and the number three, and their representation of different races (earliest depictions feature them as alike in dress and race), we can get closer to historical likelihood.
The mostly likely possibility to me: What if the Magi were the Megistanes, a hereditary priesthood of astrologers and astronomers, who also practiced oneiromancy? These Persian priests were responsible for selecting the king of the current Parthian empire and the empires before it. In fact, Daniel (yep, of the lions’ den, that Daniel) was most likely one of them, as one of his titles was Reb-Mag, or “chief of the Megistanes.” His royal appointment over a hereditary priesthood explains his colleagues’ lethal jealousy.
So let’s say a group of literal kingmakers, with a hereditary link to prophecy of the Jews’ Messiah, show up in Jerusalem and declare they’re seeking the new king? Suddenly King Herod’s freak-out doesn’t seem so extreme. Okay, it’s still extreme and unjustifiable, but at least you can see why he goes baby-killing nuts. Especially since a few decades before, the Parthians had unseated the current ruler of Jerusalem and sent Herod fleeing for his life — and Herod’s own brother didn’t make it.
These aren’t just some rich eccentrics wandering through, these guys actually have the power to name kings and successors. It’s their job description, just like describing the star is their job description as astronomers/astrologers. And oh, that dream which warned them not to return to Herod? As oneiromancers, that makes sense for them, too. (Remember that Daniel also interpreted dreams.)
The earliest depictions of the visiting Magi showed them alike and all in Parthian-style clothing, rather than the three races and different styles we usually see in modern work. So there’s some support in the art world. (I do like the concept of many races coming, however, and I did include a variety of origins and ethnicities in my multiple wise men, as described below.)
So I had my probable Magi. Now, why would they bring a drummer?
The Drummer Boy
He couldn’t be a son; that would negate him being “a poor boy too” and a young Magus in training would have little time for drumming. More inconveniently, it seems that most of the records of ancient Middle Eastern drummers show women playing. It’s not impossible that a boy might have played, but it might have been unusual.
So Arash is a slave boy, at least half-Persian, who learned the drum from his mother and inherited his instrument from her. He is purchased in the market by Saman, one of the Megistanes, and thus joins their journey to seek the Christ-child.
(And the frame drum, most popular at this time, is capable of very quiet and subtle drumming as well as the fierce dance rhythms you’ve heard. So it could be drummed for a baby, I decided.)
The Parthian empire was rather unusual at this time in that it had very little slavery, especially in contrast to the Roman empire alongside. So Arash hopes his new master will either free him or let him earn his freedom, as slaves often could — but they are heading deeper into Roman territory.
And then, of course, they must negotiate with King Herod. Where is he that is born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the east, and have come to worship him. And that’s where things really start to go wrong for Arash.
(By the way, of all these figurines I’ve found to illustrate this post, the most expensive is $6,900. Yep, that’s nearly $7,000, plus $15 shipping, for an out-of-place drummer. You can see the source of my perplexity about this Nativity scene trend. Can you guess which it is?)
Herod and the City of Jerusalem
Herod the Great was also Herod the Builder, who helped Jerusalem recover from an earthquake by commissioning a lot of projects, who built palaces and fortresses which are famous yet today (Herodium? Masada?), and who curried favor with his Jewish subjects by building a new Temple. Too bad the taxes he levied to finance his amazing building projects also impoverished and infuriated those same people.
In researching Herod’s palace, I discovered a couple of large-scale models of ancient Jerusalem. One, formerly at the Holyland Hotel, depicts the city as it was in AD 66 — slightly late for my purpose, but easy enough to work from if you know what was built in the intervening years. The model was apparently built in memory of the hotelier’s son, who died during the 1948 Israeli war, and was completed in four years by Professor Michael Avi-Yonah of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The model is enormous, about the size of a tennis court, and uses local stone just as the original buildings did
It apparently is no longer at the hotel, but I don’t know what’s become of it. I hope it’s still being enjoyed somewhere, as it’s amazing in scale and detail. It and some archaeological maps gave me some great references for a chase scene!
Huzzah for visual aids!
And yes, there’s a chase scene in my happy little Christmas carol story. That’s just how I roll.
Speaking of visual aids, I did a lot of the writing for this story at my aunt’s Texas ranch, which was eerily appropriate at times. The Hill Country has a lot of similar landscape and climate to portions of Africa and the Middle East, which makes it a good site for raising exotics and also for wandering authors. I’m not one of those people who needs a perfect setting for mood when writing, but I’m not going to turn it down, either. And it’s just kind of fun anyway.
The Fudge Factor
I like my historical fiction to be as historically accurate or plausible as possible, but sometimes we just can’t be sure and have to make an educated guess. Sometimes we discover that the probable truth is not at all what we’ve heard through tradition or folklore.
For example, we’ve all heard the phrase there was no room in the inn, but that translation is a bit unclear. The word kataluma would be better translated guest room, and it’s translated popularly as the Upper Room in Luke 22. So there wasn’t an evil innkeeper who turned away a pregnant woman, but rather there was no appropriate place in a family home or a guest house, which is more likely for a woman giving birth and thereby becoming ritually unclean (and making the house similarly unclean).
So I had to write as best I could to keep straight between what we know and what we suppose or cherish in tradition. I made other choices regarding names and spellings — Bet Lehem, for example — trying to stay closer to history and source language without making it unfamiliar.
I knew I did not want only three Magi, so that was easy, and in the end I did include scholars from other lands, more than just the Megistanes. After all, they weren’t the only observers and scholars working at the time, and other seekers are possible historically. Chinese astrologers at the time recorded a comet which seemed to stand in the west, and a wholly-fabricated-yet-interesting document claimed the Magi came from not the Middle East, but the Far East, right down the Silk Road. Since I already write about onmyouji, whose practice came out of China’s feng shui, it was fun to look into early feng shui of this time and think about how it might have led such a diviner of stars from the Han Dynasty west to Jerusalem.
I confess, I did struggle a little with the obligatory scene with baby Jesus. Even with all my research, I had to make a few not-quite-arbitrary choices between contested points, and one of these was to have the Magi arrive while Jesus was very young, not a toddler. How, then, could he smile at the drummer, as the carol attests? Infants smile with inherent pleasure rather soon, but they don’t smile socially until 6-8 weeks of age. (I had to look that up. I don’t do babies.)
But again, research to the rescue! Whether early or late, the Magi had to arrive at least after Jesus’ dedication and redemption offering at the Temple. If we calculate 8 days until circumcision, and then 33 days until the atonement offering, we reach just about 6 weeks — and there! the baby can smile at the drummer boy. (A bit early, maybe, but hey, it’s baby Jesus! I think a little precocious smiling is acceptable.)
Tune in next time for my recommended renditions of the carol. You probably don’t own my favorite — yet.
Oh, just one more thing
This book follows Arash, a slave in the Middle East who longs for freedom. Two thousand years later, there are still millions who are literally bought and sold for labor or sex trade today.
So today through Friday, 100% of direct sales profits (purchased via this site) go straight to support International Justice Mission in their fight against modern slavery. Feel free to share and review; there’s no cap or limit. (This is not to imply a sponsorship or endorsement by IJM.)
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