Christmas, Day 12–““In front are the singers, after them the musicians; with them are the maidens playing tambourines (drums).” Psalm 68:25
Again, the distances between modern instrumentation, that of the carol writer, and biblical instrumentation (and translation) leave us with a bit of a disconnect.
According to the New Grove Dictionary of Musical Instruments, the Hebrew word that gets translated as “tambourine” or “tabret” is toph, which was a frame drum–goatskin, typically–stretched over a wooden hoop, and jingle-less:
- “The modern tambourine is a “jingle” percussion instrument, commonly without a skin, and often half circle or crescent shaped, (although the round, skinned types are used in Latin ensembles and for other more grass roots styled groups). It would appear that the tambourine we find in the Bible was not a tambourine (as we know it) at all.” (via PsalmDrummers.org)
As well, they were often played by women. (As an aside, with a bit of a harrrumph, why are the women counted separately from “the musicians”? But let’s not go down THAT road.)
So the usual image of the 12 (male) drummers drumming on snare drums in procession has it wrong on at least two counts, from a strictly scriptural perspective: it coulda/woulda/shoulda been women in procession, drumming on small hand drums. But perhaps for the carol writer and that time, it would have been more likely to see men drumming, as on the field of battle–and much less likely to be able to round up 12 women with no obligations and no qualms about being handed over to the True Love for Christmas!
All of this aside, I confess: I love percussion. I love hearing it, I love playing it. I learned long ago that the English handbells I began ringing while in college were considered a percussion instrument. I began ringing the small melodic treble bells at the high end of the scale, but over the years found myself (by preference) gradually moving down the scale to the large bass clef bells that provided the more percussive foundation for the rest of the ensemble.
Then, in the context of playing a handbell piece, I first heard the bodhran, the traditional Irish frame drum. My ears perked up, and I fell in love with the instrument. Eventually, my sweet baboo gave me one as a gift one Christmas, and I began working with an excellent teacher online. I play whenever I can!
Here is a great little ensemble–with a female bodhran drummer, which I love:
Then came the djembe. Enjoy this video of a local drum circle that plays in Frederick, Maryland. This was an occasional gathering of community on lovely days in the local park: the Baker Park Play Down. I’m in there, playing both bodhran (1:22) and djembe (12:01, 12:50, 13:06)!
I don’t know what drives me to pick up all these weird things–handbells, kettlebells, bodhran, djembe–and either swing them, ring them, or bash them–but they’re all wonderful parts of my crazyplate life. Each becomes, for me, an expression of joy, given as a gift by the One who came at Christmas, and returned as gift to Him.
Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might . . . (Eccles. 9:10) On this final day of Christmas, celebrate the Gift-giver who came to give us joy. Whatever gifts you have been given, use them with “all your might”. In this way, too, we worship, returning our full-hearted joy as gift to Him. In the words of the great Rosetti poem and Christmas carol:
Merry Christmas, friends. Go strong.
Christmas, Day 11–“And all the people came up after him, and the people piped with pipes, and rejoiced with great joy, so that the earth rent with the sound of them..” 1 Kings 1:40
Musical instrumentation in biblical times and lands was not a complicated affair; but making connection to modern instrumentation is. The images for the 11th day of Christmas have various of kinds modern wind
instruments as the “pipe”–I see trumpets, flutes, piccolos, Highland bagpipes, fifes . . . it is not clear to me what kind of pipes the carol-writer had in mind, and even less clear what the pipes of 1 Kings 1:40 might have looked or sounded like!
But we know that, like dance, the music was a full part of the worship of the people. I like that.
My sweet baboo and I went to a most excellent small liberal arts college affiliated with the Presbyterian church, Lyon College (or Arkansas College, when we were there). As part of its recognition of the Scottish roots of that denomination, the college celebrates all things Scottish, including hosting annual Highland games and fielding an excellent pipe band, complete with drummers and dancers.
I had good friends in the pipe band, and learned to love that powerful, skirling sound, which was incorporated into all of the community and academic events of the campus, including worship! Our annual Kirkin’ o’ the Tartans re-enacts (apocryphy alert!) the times under English rule–when England had banned as treasonous both the wearing of tartan and the playing of bagpipes–when the quietly rebellious Scots would bring swatches of their family tartans into their churches. They were “kirkin” (churching) their tartans, embracing their traditions and asking God’s blessing on their families, even under an oppressive rule.
That annual commemoration includes the bagpipes, which are heard playing from far outside the Chapel, moving closer and closer, until finally the entire ensemble bursts inside–and the very walls vibrate! Even now, I can get a little weepy and homesick hearing and seeing a good pipe band in action, especially Lyon’s. (Hearing a bad pipe band in action brings up a different kind of emotion.)
Enjoy this Youtube video of the Lyon College pipe band–and crank it up!
Can you hear the joy? I can. Be joyful today, friends, on this lovely 11th Day of Christmas.
Christmas, Day 10–“The voice of my beloved! behold, he comes leaping upon the mountains, skipping upon the hills.” Song of Solomon 2:8
Another stretch? Not too much. We celebrate the tenth day of welcoming the Lord of lords coming into this sad old world of ours–who would not leap for joy?
And see this? Here’s what blows my mind–
what, in the words of the poet, is “the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart“–
Our Beloved has come to us, not just willingly but eagerly–
“leaping” and “skipping” toward us–
pursuing us with a fierce and determined love.
Why? Why would this be so? Why would He come leaping across a cosmos to live this ragged life with us?
“What is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?”
Think on this question, this 10th day of Christmas, and see if your heart doesn’t engage in a little leaping of its own.
Christmas, Day 9–”Then shall the young women rejoice in the dance, and the young men and the old shall be merry. I will turn their mourning into joy; I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow.” Jeremiah 31:13
I love all the references to dancing that took place in the Old Testament! Dance was worship; worship was dance. Miriam and the women of Israel danced to honor the desert God on the shores of the Red Sea; David danced before the Lord in the temple.
I myself have been known to recuse myself from opportunities to engage in “body prayer” or liturgical dance–my decades-long lack of confidence in my own body holds me back. But it is hard to describe how deeply moved I am when I see dance, and particularly when offered as worship.
I have recently learned some very basic forms of qigong, a healing martial art related to tai chi. The movements are gentle and flowing, and have become part of my daily routine. One in particular–Looking for the Moon in the Sea–had me in tears as I was learning it. For this form, I raise my cupped hands to the heavens, form a frame through which I look for the moon, then draw the circle of the moon with my hands. I then follow my hands down into a deep bend, where I draw the same circle of the moon “in the Sea”. I cup the image in my hands once more, raise them to the sky, and the form begins again. This is a very slow, rhythmic motion, and has become for me a kind of devotional dance, a form of worship.
I am looking not for the moon, high and remote, but for One who is closer than a brother–who dances with me through the raging sea. Was there one who danced before the holy Child, seeing in the manger God’s answer to the years of sackcloth and sorrow?
I like to think so.
On this 9th day of Christmas–as we return to work and school–don’t forget to dance a little. Rejoice and be merry!