Like most of us, Angie Coiro celebrates the holidays every year. Unlike most of us, during the season, she flees when she sees carolers, refuses to turn on the radio and avoids Christmas concerts like the plague.
The reason? She’s playing the Little Drummer Boy Challenge. Its basic rule: Avoid hearing the song. If you hear it, you lose.
Coiro, a longtime Bay Area journalist and former host of “In Deep with Angie Coiro” on KALW, is one of thousands of people worldwide who play the, er, idiosyncratic holiday game.
The game was started by colleagues at a tech company in Berkeley in the 1990s. Coiro, a San Carlos resident, has played for the last 10 years.
“I have been carrying it to a ridiculous extreme this year,” Coiro said. “(Radio Station) 98.6 plays Christmas carols; I refused to listen.” When her favorite holiday song, Nat “King” Cole’s “The Christmas Song,” played in a store, her main reaction was relief that it wasn’t “The Little Drummer Boy,” she said.
So many ways to ‘die’
The game has different versions. The original version involves avoiding the song from dawn on Nov. 1 through dawn on Dec. 26. Another version, the Little Drummer Boy Challenge, sets the timeframe from Black Friday to 11:59 p.m. Dec. 23.
Regardless of what version they play, participants take the game mock-seriously.
“I have died in my own home decorating the tree. One year we all got taken out that way — my whole family,” said Lisa Carvalho of Berkeley, referring to hearing the song.
Ever since then, Carvalho has refused to play Christmas music at home, she said. Like Coiro, she has been playing for 10 years. Carvalho has never won.
“This year I got killed two days after Thanksgiving,” Carvalho said.
“There was a group of men dressed like tin soldiers playing Christmas music on horns at the Bay Street shopping center in Emeryville.” Never suspecting that such an ensemble would break out into “The Little Drummer Boy,” she and her husband failed to flee — and paid the price.
Rita Hurault, an Oakland resident, had better luck in a challenging situation.
She was at a ukulele jam a week before Christmas Eve when the dread moment arrived.
“There was a songbook from which songs were chosen to be played,” Hurault said in an email.
“When the leader moved toward ‘The Little Drummer Boy,’ I told the group about the game and that I would be happy enough to leave if folks wanted to play it.”
Realizing the gravity of the situation, the leader skipped the offending song, leaving Hurault unscathed.
Tech writer Elizabeth Fox wasn’t as lucky. She met her fate “at one of those stores that sells animal skulls and tarot cards, weird things, and they were playing punk versions of Christmas carols,” the Campbell resident said.
“They played a punk version of The Boy,” Fox said. “My mouth dropped open. It was the last place I would expect to hear it.”
She shared a photo of her horrified face on the Facebook page of the Little Drummer Boy Challenge. With this version of the game, people share photos of their reactions to their loss and log it on the website.
By all accounts, the folks who started the game hated the song and did everything they could to avoid it, and Fox is following in their anti-Boy footsteps, she said.
“I’ve always disliked that song because first of all it’s slow. I like a fast tempo,” Fox said. “And it’s monotonous and dumb because there’s the baby Jesus and the wise men and everyone is admiring him and there’s this kid who wants to play a drum?”
On the other hand, Carvalho said, “I actually really like the song.” She plays the game because “it’s so creative and irrelevant, and all my snarkiest friends play.”
“I’ve always disliked that song because first of all it’s slow. I like a fast tempo. And it’s monotonous and dumb because there’s the baby Jesus and the wise men and everyone is admiring him and there’s this kid who wants to play a drum?”Elizabeth Fox, game participant
Like Carvalho, Michael Alan Peck, creator of the Little Drummer Boy Challenge Facebook page and website, likes the song just fine. He started the Facebook page “as a goof,” he said.
“I lived in San Francisco from 2005-08, and that’s when I first heard about the game,” he said. After moving to Chicago, his wife got hit with the song at a restaurant that November and he set up the Facebook page in 2010.
About 6,000 people follow the page. Most of the traffic is from the U.S., but there are followers from the United Kingdom, Canada, Hong Kong, Australia, Chile, Ukraine and all over the world, Peck said.
The game is free to play and always has been. This year, Peck added a link to the nonprofit Americares, which delivers medicines and care to people facing poverty and disaster. Donating to the nonprofit is completely optional for those who play the game.
“I’ve had a number of people say the holidays are hard for them, and the game is a distraction that helps them get through it,” Peck said. “Sometimes with no intention at all, you end up doing good.”