I can remember the LP album cover. Yes, I know how old that makes me, but the iconic blue-backed Little Drummer Boy is etched on my memory. It was the Harry Simeone Chorale album that popularized the song “The Little Drummer Boy,” but “Do You Hear What I Hear?” was its other influential and well-loved track.
My first memories of that song include all the happy Christmases of my childhood. But for songwriters Noël Regney and Gloria Shayne Baker, the song expressed very different ideas. They wrote it in the tensest moment of the Cuban Missile Crisis (1962). For them, the song was a desperate plea for the leaders of the world to consider peace and back away from the brink of annihilation. They felt, though probably didn’t know, how close we came to a fiery end.
For those of us who did not live through the Cuban Missile Crisis, the context may not be immediately evident. Instead, what we hear is a pious story that begins along the lines of the Christmas story in Luke. The star with its tail “dancing in the night” is a biblical element of the Christmas story, if imaginatively described. The star speaks to a lamb: poetic license is allowed, of course, and the metaphorical reference to Jesus as the Lamb of God is not unfruitful. It is also a pious thought to think that not only shepherds but also the sheep and all creation responded to the message of the Creator come into the world. So much the better.
The lamb communicates its wonder to a shepherd boy: again, shepherds are a traditional element of the Lukan narrative, the angels’ song did indeed resound through the night, and all is proceeding as expected. The shepherd boy then speaks to “the mighty king”: more license is taken here, but the message of the star does reach even to the palace of King Herod in the Matthew narrative. The wise men arrive, a little more grandly than a shepherd boy, perhaps, and they ask King Herod the Great whether he has seen what they have seen.
These are all familiar movements in the Christmas story. Yes, the narratives of Matthew and Luke get conflated (is this unusual in Christmas carols?), but the general shape of the story is Gospel-like. The birth of “a child, a child, shivering in the cold,” does indeed challenge every worldly monarch, every political and social system, and in the child is God’s promise that he will bring goodness and light.
But this is where the story takes a sudden departure from the shape of the Gospel narratives.
Said the king to the people everywhere
Listen to what I say
The Child, the Child, sleeping in the night
He will bring us goodness and light
In the Gospel narratives, the child Messiah threatens the mighty king just by existing. King Herod does not welcome him; he responds with deception, and later with murderous brutality. The biblical slaughter of the innocents reminds us that Christ’s birth is not a comfortable event, that it does not simply affirm the world’s cultures and customs and norms, and that the world is plenty capable of fighting back. Just as Jesus will die for the life of the world, so these innocents die for his sake, the first to be sanctified through blood.
So, why does the slaughter of the innocents not appear in the lyrics of “Do You Hear What I Hear?” Two reasons are possible: first, the “mighty king” here is not, after all, Herod the Great. It is one of the Magi. This story is an imaginative speculation as to how one of the traditional “three kings” might have first noticed the star through the agency of an imagined shepherd boy. Note that the mighty king in the lyrics responds, “Let us bring him silver and gold.” Frankincense and myrrh may not have rhymed properly, but the implication is clear.
The second reason this story does not continue to track with the expectations of traditional Christmas piety is that the carol is pointing to the three kings as anti-Herod figures. How this mighty king responds is how Herod and Caesar and every other earthly monarch ought to have responded to the message of angels, shepherds, and Magi: everyone should want to worship the holy child. The carol invites us to do faithfully that which Herod failed to do. It is asking us to be the anti-Herod in our own day.
For Regney, writing these lyrics, the world’s desperate need was for an anti-Herod to overcome Cold War tensions and achieve peace. In our day, there are other needs, other systems that need challenging, other identities that need to bow before the King of Kings. The Christmas baby doesn’t belong in the manger, but out and about, changing our lives and our thoughts and our habits — indeed, the whole world.
Still the message comes to us from mouth to mouth, as in the carol. The foolishness of preaching sounds a lot like “Do you hear what I hear?” “The Kingdom of Heaven has come nigh thee,” preached that same holy child and his disciples. In this carol the message of Jesus comes right up to us, in the words of simple preachers, the simple text of the Bible, and the simple message of the Church; and we are asked whether we will respond like the historical Herod or the carol’s faithful king, ready to bow the knee and honor the Lord of Lords.