There's a bigger danger this holiday season than ending up on Santa's naughty list. A lump of coal in a Christmas stocking is one thing. What can happen to you if you hear "Little Drummer Boy" is something else altogether.
You know the tune: "Come they told me/Pa rum pum pum pum/A newborn King to see/Pa rum pum pum pum." It's a Christmas standard, and in cities and small towns everywhere, it emanates from department store sound systems, TV commercials, Web sites -- you name it. To the average modern-day sophisticate, "Little Drummer Boy (note: read the story before clicking the link)" is nothing more than a song to love or hate, to endure or enjoy. But to the many players of the LDB Game, the song's aesthetic merits are hardly the point.
Here's how the game works: Once the holiday season starts (more on that later), you're alive until you hear LDB. Once you hear it -- knocking around inside your own head may not count -- you're "LDB Out." Victory (and the attendant bragging rights) accrue to anyone who successfully avoids LDB until Christmas. On e-mail lists, blogs, Twitter, and Facebook, groups full of players intent on surviving LDB season are now in full swing.
One might ask why would anyone play LDB? To Bunny Watson, an Oakland, Calif., DJ who introduced a couple of hundred players on one e-mail list to the game, it's all about the stories. "The whole thing just struck me as hilarious for some reason. I saw it on someone's blog and decided I was going to play too. Then I 'infected' my friend group and got a bunch of people playing," she recalled. "It's as much a game of chance as of strategy, though people sometimes do really funny things in the name of strategy, such as wearing earplugs if they have to go shopping. I have one friend who just turns down her hearing aids."
There are all kinds of LDB hazards out there, not least of which is researching an article on the game (recommended: mute the computer's speakers). Given that shopping spots are one of the most common danger zones, many players limit their retail exposure as best they can. The LDB Game is not political, though, and players are not necessarily anticonsumerists. They don't Occupy anything. They love their high-tech gadgets, happily eat at restaurants, and even hope for spiffy presents under their trees. But they definitely want to win.
And so it was that on Thanksgiving Day, high above Berkeley, Calif., eight friends, all involved in the tech world in one form or another, sat enjoying a rich and satisfying dinner of deep-fried turkey, duck, and all the trimmings when a Christmas tune began to play. The potential for a massacre was huge. All eight people -- including the hosts -- could be taken out at once. The risk was recognized, threats were made. And understood. The music was changed. The tension lifted.
Others haven't been as lucky. At one Bay Area karaoke bar, a few weeks ago, a man who goes by the name of Weazie took out the entire saloon. With a dance version, no less.
More often, though, the moment of one's LDB demise is a private affair, and the e-mail lists and Facebook groups where players congregate are littered this time of year with LDB Out tales, many of which are embarrassingly banal (listening to the radio, shopping for gifts). Often, though, there's a fun -- or at least involved -- tale to be told, such as the fate Watson herself suffered one year when, deep into hours of fighting on the phone with her ISP over the crisis caused when her business' essential Web site went down, she got taken out by the company's hold muzak.
Players are honor bound to share their LDB Out stories, and they mostly do, because, really, the game is just a fun social exercise. And besides, there's a lot less pressure when your time is up. "I've been tempting fate this holiday season. I've spent more time in stores in the last two months than I have in probably the last 10 years,..." Robyn Herr, from Cleveland, reported to her e-mail list the other day after getting LDB'd in a novelty store called Big Fun, "now I don't have to be on guard for LDB for the rest of the season."
On the other hand, there's certainly pride in winning, and veteran players employ certain strategies year in and year out. Watson advises against going into a Home Depot or a "Bloodbath and Beyond." "Both claim many victims each year," she says. Also, avoid taxis if you can and make sure inexperienced players don't sing LDB to you, because it'll knock you both out.
Then there's well-known entertainment land mines. Among them, the 2012 "Saturday Night Live" Christmas special, the November 26 "Colbert Report," and for those with stacks of old DVDs lying around, the "West Wing" Season One Christmas episode.
In fact, it was thanks to that episode of "West Wing" that Watson was asked to weigh in on when, exactly, the LDB Game kicks off. Some -- you might consider them LDB Conservatives -- say the game isn't on until Thanksgiving Day, while others point to November 1. But to Watson, it starts when the first bells start jingling and the first notes of "Silent Night" are heard in stores. You know it when you see it. Halloween is risky, but the first day of fall is still too early. On September 21, Watson was asked for her opinion by a Democrat who was gearing up for the upcoming presidential election by doing a complete rewatching of Aaron Sorkin's hit show about life in the White House. LDB encountered, the hopeful question was whether it was fatal. "Whew! You're still in...and the game is NOT yet afoot," she replied.
A bigger question might be when it's safe to blast LDB. On both a Web site purporting to spell out the rules of the game and on Facebook, it's said that the game ends at 12:01 a.m. on December 26. But in the community Watson is part of, Christmas is a day of rest. "A group of friends has a tradition to sing it, loudly and drunkenly at 12:01 am on Christmas morning at an annual party," she said. "It's a silly, lighthearted part of the holiday season and it is one part you know is going to be entertaining, no matter how it goes down. You can even play it with your mom."