Written in 1941 by a music teacher, The Little Drummer Boy (originally titled “Carol Of The Drum”) has become a favorite Christmas carol around the world with over 220 different versions having been recorded in seven different languages. Over the years, I’ve listened to the song and enjoyed it, but I can’t say it was one of my favorites.
I mean Christmas would not have been the same without hearing at some point the arresting thump of voices replicating the sound of the bass drum, but for me, other songs like “O, Holy Night”, “Silent Night” and “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” were more likely to stand out in my mind and signal the Holiday Season. That changed this year for some reason. Perhaps it is age that makes us see things in from a different point of view. Perhaps it is just a realization that we achieve after adding more information and experience to our knowledge base. Either way, I’d like to offer up a few thoughts I’ve recently had about “The Little Drummer Boy” and see if perhaps you might see the song in a new light as well.
First, before we discuss the song in detail, perhaps we should listen to it. Here’s a live recording of the song by Jars of Clay. It is now one of my favorite versions.
Next, in order to parse this song properly, here are the full lyrics:
Little Drummer Boy
Come they told me, pa rum pum pum pum
A new born King to see, pa rum pum pum pum
Our finest gifts we bring, pa rum pum pum pum
To lay before the King, pa rum pum pum pum,
rum pum pum pum, rum pum pum pum,
So to honor Him, pa rum pum pum pum,
When we come.
Little Baby, pa rum pum pum pum
I am a poor boy too, pa rum pum pum pum
I have no gift to bring, pa rum pum pum pum
That’s fit to give the King, pa rum pum pum pum,
rum pum pum pum, rum pum pum pum,
Shall I play for you, pa rum pum pum pum,
On my drum?
Mary nodded, pa rum pum pum pum
The ox and lamb kept time, pa rum pum pum pum
I played my drum for Him, pa rum pum pum pum
I played my best for Him, pa rum pum pum pum,
rum pum pum pum, rum pum pum pum,
Then He smiled at me, pa rum pum pum pum
Me and my drum.
Before I get into the points I want to make, I want to make it clear that the story of The Little Drummer boy is in no way a Biblical story. There are no verses in the Bible that refer to this event ever taking place and yet I suspect there are those out there who haven’t read the Bible or in particular the Christmas story who might assume that it is since it refers to events that were depicted in the Bible. I want to also make it clear that I do not believe a story has to come directly from the Bible to make Biblical points. This song has become so ingrained in the minds of so many people precisely because it speaks to values and images that resonate with each and every person whether they realize it or not.
The Kid Had Faith
The song is told from the point of view of a little boy who hears from the others around him that a new King is born and he believes in the new born King, otherwise we would not have the story of The Little Drummer Boy at all. He believed all he heard about the baby and his King-ship. He heard the people talk about gathering up their finest gifts to bring to the new King to honor him. The boy believed in this King and he believed this King was different than other Kings. The proof is in the fact that as he heard the stories, the boy began to make a plan to go and see this King. Those in power around an Earthly King would never have allowed a lowly street kid to have the opportunity to see the new born. It just wasn’t done. But our hero never doubts that he will get to see the King and so he makes his plans to go.
The Kid Had Humility AND Confidence
The little boy knew his station in life. He knew that he had no material goods as he was not a wealthy child. He knew that he was poor. Which makes the fact that he believed he would get to see the King even more amazing. In those days as in these, the caste system was firmly in place. The Romans were at the top of the food chain while Jews were at the bottom and this child was at the bottom of the bottom of the socioeconomic structure of the time. And yet, he decides that he has one gift that he can bring to the King which is his talent to play the drum. We don’t know if the boy could actually play or not. He might have been a terrible drummer. But if you’ve ever seen a baby sitting in the middle of a kitchen surrounded by pots and pans banging on them with a wooden spoon, then you know that skill doesn’t matter to the baby. The baby will confidently be striking the pots and pans generating as much noise as possible and laughing at the loudness of it all. Ability and capability are often in the eyes of the beholder. To the baby, the racket she is making is music to her ears and the fact that mom is probably nursing a migrate after about 30 minutes of this doesn’t even figure into the baby’s perception of the performance.
Perhaps the kid was really good at playing the drum. I mean if we assume that the boy was telling the truth that he was very poor, then perhaps he played his drum on the streets for a few pennies here or there and that’s how he ate. We don’t know if the boy had any parents as they are never mentioned, but I imagine if he were an orphan, his life would have been very hard indeed and his sole means of support might well have been the pennies he earned by playing his drum. That seems to be a hard way to make a living as drums in generally walk the fine line between sounding like wonderful rhythmic beats and noise. But the Bible makes reference to making a “joyful noise” and in our story, it really doesn’t matter whether the boy was any good at drumming or not. What does make a difference is that the boy believed that his drumming was his best talent and therefore his best gift to give to the King.
The Kid’s Faith, Gift & Effort Pay Off
In the end, what the boy believed was true: He got to see the new born King and with the Virgin Mary’s approval, the boy begins to use his talent to honor the King. He actually must have been a pretty good drummer as the animals even joined him and kept time for him. And the little drummer boy played his best and he believed it was his best effort and he gave his all in his performance.
Then He smiled at the little drummer boy and confirmed for the boy all that he believed. The smile confirmed that it was good. It confirmed that the sound was pleasing to the King. It confirmed that the King was pleased that the boy came to honor him. It confirmed that the King was pleased with the drummer boy’s effort. It confirmed that the new born was the King for in that smile, the drummer boy found favor with God.
So What Does All This Mean?
I don’t know if the writer of this song thought about all these things while writing the song. Normally, when I hear about symbolism and allegory in literature, there is a small part of me that wonders if an author might write something just to write it and then secretly laugh at all the critics when they read about what they “intended to say with their story.” What really matters that for some reason this year, this song spoke to me in a way it has never spoken to me before and here is what I heard:
God doesn’t care if you have wealth. God doesn’t care if you have lots of talent. God doesn’t care if you have fame. God only cares that you do the best you can with what you have to honor and glorify Him.
And, when you do that, He smiles.
God Bless and Merry Christmas!