'The Drum Goes Dead" is a Depression-era Christmas story by Nebraskan author Bess Streeter Aldrich. Set in a small rural town in the late 1930s, the story follows bank cashier Richard Lanning throughout his (and his town's) Christmas Eve.
Aldrich sketches the era well. As Lanning walk to work, he notices the "houses and garages that needed painting," the neglected yard work. He is disturbed in his heart this Christmas Eve. The depression, "the one with a capital D," has hung on in the town. The community is in the midst of a three-year drought, and farmers and businesses alike are hurting. In the wider world, "nations were at other nations' throats." The "general rundown appearance of the little town" weighs on him, as does the plight of his friends and neighbors.
Aldrich paints a quiet portrait of Lanning and the "ruts into which a small-town man" slips, including playing Santa Claus at the annual Christmas pageant. He decides that it would be hypocritical to celebrate Christmas, with its promise of "good cheer and tranquility," when so much is wrong in the world. Lanning has lost his Christmas spirit, and "the death of the spirit is a grievous thing."
Aldrich carefully steers Richard Lanning through his day. She was a master at capturing the small moments, and she does not waste her mood or her story on a Big Revelation. Lanning does not suddenly "find" his Christmas spirit. Instead, it comes to him in small drops of daily life.
Following a curbside conversation with the town's remaining Civil War veteran about his Christmas memories, Lanning begins asking his bank customers "what's the best Christmas you ever had?" All day long, "these common, ordinary small-town folk" tell him stories of family, stories of grandchildren, stories of hard times softened by the holiday.
It is a retired professor who provides the title of the story, quoting from his study of medieval English celebrations: The maskers and the mummers make the merry spirit/ But if they lost their money, their drum goes dead. The professor reflects that in modern times, where friends and neighbors had lost their money and the world was uneasy, it "it takes a great deal of spirit and courage to beat away as though nothing had happened."
It is not until Lanning is walking home that evening that he starts to turn over the day's conversations in his head. He realizes that the common thread to all of the stories he heard that day was home. It is a small realization, a small drop, but one that nudges Lanning towards seeing the hope and the promise of the season.
Many of my friends speak of a muted Christmas spirit this year. Some have been dealing with prolonged financial problems, others struggle to find employment. Others, because of family difficulties or other issues, have said they are not feeling much Christmas spirit this year. I often struggle with it myself. Christmas for me often has a fine deft edge of melancholy which can widen into a band of sadness if I am not careful.
It takes a great deal of spirit and courage to beat away as though nothing had happened.
In rereading Aldrich's story before writing this post, I reflected on Richard Lanning, her "everyman" who started Christmas Eve feeling disconsolate and burdened, and ended it feeling "mentally strengthened, emotionally comforted." He found his way back by stepping outside of himself and his emotional stew, asking others about their best Christmas memories.
What I would say if Richard Lanning asked me?
I have a handful of favorite memories, most of which involve my two boys, some of which involve Warren, and the rest of which reach back into my childhood. Maybe my "best" memory was the year Ben and Sam received a Playstation 2, hidden away upstairs as they unwrapped other presents downstairs. Sam unwrapped a PS2 game and immediately said, almost in tears, "this is the wrong game. We don't have a PS2." Ben then unwrapped a PS2 game, started to repeat Sam's comment, then stopped mid-sentence to stare first at his parents, then at his little brother. The boys both screamed at the same moment as they realized a PS2 was somewhere in the house. One of them, and I don't remember which, shook from his excitement. Seconds later, they were pelting up the stairs to find their gift. Their shrieks when they discovered it soon bounced back down the steps. It was a grand and glorious day for two little boys.
What Christmas do you remember best?