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Why Does the Little Drummer Boy Challenge Stress Me?

Why do we care about silly markers of cool?

Every year, just after Thanksgiving, my Facebook feed gets filled with references to "The Little Drummer Boy Challenge."

If this particular cultural chestnut hasn't impinged on your life, here's how it goes. Someone posts the challenge: "Can you go from December 1 to December 23 without hearing 'The Little Drummer Boy'?" People interested in participating put their name down. When you hear it — in the mall, on TV, radio, elementary school children's concert — you're out. You put your name on the wall of shame. Every few days a prompt comes through your feed: Are you still in?

It's fun and "mostly harmless," and I "won" the challenge by not hearing the song six or seven years in a row.

What got me thinking was noticing what happened this year when I lost the challenge almost immediately. (It was a fun YouTube video of a Christmas light display with a techno soundtrack that devolved into a techno version of LDB around a minute in. And darn it, they didn't post a warning!)

I was out on December 1 or 2 and didn't have to participate (this is the second year in a row I've been out early). So I got a chance to observe — I'm a psychologist, that's what we do. What I noticed as an observer, not as a participant, was how very tense this challenge made me.

Think about the premise. An innocuous Christmas song goes from being one of many songs in the background Christmas music rotation to something I am monitoring for in my environment. I'd go into a diner, hearing that Christmas music was playing and realizing I needed to leave pretty quickly, because "The Little Drummer Boy," which is in pretty heavy rotation, had a reasonable probability of coming up if a lingered too long over my coffee. At the grocery store yesterday — even after I was out, I realized I wasn't just letting those background carols roll over me. I was listening to the cadence of the selections. If you listen to background music, you'll find it isn't usually random. It goes through moods — a series of bouncy songs ("Frosty"), more nostalgic ones ("Winter Wonderland"), then the quieter ones ("Silent Night"). "The Little Drummer Boy" is useful to DJs, because it helps transition from nostalgia to sacred and back up again.

What that meant to me is that as I felt that mood change, I'd start to tense, waiting for it. My husband did too — he'd mutter, "It'll be here soon...." The tension and anxiety I could feel building is particularly ironic for two reasons. First, I've never "lost" to a song in a diner or store. It's a TV show, National Public Radio piece, or Facebook video that has gotten me. More importantly this is a dumb thing to get anxious about at all. It's a silly game. It's supposed to be fun. And nobody even cares that I'm playing it or certainly not that I win, except for me. This is me monitoring me.

This is a parable, not a worry. The Little Drummer Challenge is interesting as a parable for the many small stressors that social media can add to our lives. Other people express opinions ("'The Little Drummer Boy' song is trite and saccharine"). Other people brag that they're too cool to be in the kind of places that would every play "The Little Drummer Boy" ("I don't do malls"). Others post ironic "challenges" (Are you the kind of person who lives a wholesome, cool, and alternative enough lifestyle to avoid it?). Although I might not accept those opinions (see the lacuna below — I like the song), they still influence my behavior and emotions.

As a psychologist who studies social influence, I find that interesting. Artificial imperatives — even those we don't accept — can cause us stress.


A brief lacuna. For the record, I happen to like the song "The Little Drummer Boy." I sang it in choir in elementary school, playing the zills. It is less melancholy than many Christmas songs, has a sweet sentiment, and I like the regimented rhythm, which contrasts with many other tunes of the season. There is an argument among some that it is a singularly silly song — the last thing tired parents and a newborn need is a drum solo. Others find it completely saccharine. However, there are literally dozens of versions of this song, from singers like Bing Crosby and David Bowie, a great techno version that took me out this year, to a funkified guitar solo by Kirk Douglas I just heard on the New Yorker radio hour. There are schmaltzy versions. One that always brings me to tears is the solemn rendition on The West Wing, where it movingly accompanies a military funeral of a homeless veteran (that one got me last year). Like most songs, it's in the music, the musician, and the listener.