In defense of ‘The Little Drummer Boy’

by Kevin Birnbaum

Grigory_Gagarin_ChristmasChristmas by Grigory Gagarin (1811-1893). Not pictured: little drummer boy.

When I was a kid I loved “The Little Drummer Boy.” Maybe it was all those “pa rum pa pum pums,” or maybe it was just that I’d learned a fun version of the song on the piano, but I couldn’t get enough. As I got older, though, I started to find all that pumming a little ridiculous, and the lyrics started to seem rather insipid (“the ox and ass kept time,” really?), and I was pretty sure I’d outgrown the silly little song.

I don’t remember what made me reconsider my disdain for “The Little Drummer Boy,” but during my sophomore year of college I started thinking more about the lyrics, and I found them almost painfully beautiful. Don’t laugh. The song is not as silly or saccharine as you might think. It’s the story of a poor boy who wants to honor the newborn Jesus, but has nothing to offer except his one humble skill. You can feel the pain and humility in his pleading, “I have no gift to bring … that’s fit to give our King.”

But when he asks if he may play for the Baby Jesus, Mary nods her approval. Timekeeping livestock notwithstanding, I always get a little teary-eyed and my heart swells at the lines “I played my drum for him … I played my best for him … Then he smiled at me.”

The little drummer boy has so little to give—he can’t compete with the “finest gifts” of others—but he gives all he has, and that is enough. The Lord is well pleased. The boy’s drumming is like the widow’s mite, and it’s a lesson for all of us. It doesn’t matter if we’re rich or poor, talented or mediocre—if we give all that we have, all that we are, to the Child in the manger, it is enough. That’s all he wants.

So if you tend to dismiss “The Little Drummer Boy,” give it another chance. The best recording I know is the King’s Singers’ take from their excellent album Christmas. They treat the song with fitting simplicity and dignity, and the result is truly beautiful. Give it a listen.