The National Catholic Review
Fifth in a series for Advent and Christmas
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You have likely heard “The Little Drummer Boy” played at least once in the last month. When it comes to the Christmas season, this simple song of a boy present at the Epiphany who does not think he has anything to give is one of the classics.

In Scripture, though, there is no mention of a drummer boy present with the wise men. And the idea of a boy playing his drum for a newborn is pretty preposterous. I don’t care if she is the Virgin Mary; that’s a one-way ticket to a time-out. The drummer boy seems like a figure taken from another context entirely, perhaps the American Revolution or the Civil War, one of the boy drummers from the corps laying before the Christ child a people’s desperate prayers for peace.

Actually, the song “The Little Drummer Boy” originates from the mid-20th century, and its creation really did involve conflict. Supposedly the songwriter Katherine K. Davis wrote it in 1941, inspired by an old Czech carol. The tune, she said, came to her in a dream. Fifteen years later, however, Henry Onorati and Harry Simeone claimed they had written it. At the very least, they provided the arrangement that brought widespread attention to the tune, in the 1957 version sung by the Harry Simeone Chorale. But the dispute over who wrote the song was never fully resolved. And neither side seems ever to have explained the inspiration behind the little drummer boy himself. The Czech melody, if there ever was one, is long since lost.

While many performers have sung the song over the years (including my personal favorite, Marlene Dietrich—imagine her in a Christmas sweater!), perhaps the most famous performance was that of David Bowie and Bing Crosby in Crosby’s “Merrie Old Christmas” television special in 1977. You can still find it on YouTube. After a warmly humorous introduction, the two of them stand at a piano and Crosby sings “Little Drummer Boy,” while Bowie offers a counterpoint entitled “Peace On Earth”: “Peace on Earth, can it be?/ Years from now, perhaps we’ll see/ See the day of glory/ See the day when men of good will/ live in peace, live in peace again.” The arrangement is simple, but the emotional wallop is significant.

Paradoxically, that moment, too, was born of strife. Bowie’s counterpoint was written only after he informed the producers that he hated “Little Drummer Boy” and wondered if he could sing something else. He was on the show in the first place, he later explained, because he knew his mother liked Crosby. Crosby himself, who looks gaunt in the special, would die a month after filming.

The one significant attempt to imagine the story of the little drummer boy came in a 1968 television special for children. Two early stop-motion animation geniuses, Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass—of “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” and “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town” fame—produced a Christmas special, “The Little Drummer Boy,” about Aaron, a shepherd boy with a drum who lives a frustrated life in a Bethlehem occupied by surly Romans. After a centurion runs over his sheep Baba, the boy turns to one of the three visiting kings, hoping he can save the animal. The king directs Aaron to the baby Jesus.

In the sequence that follows, even as the kings come before the baby Jesus, the camera never leaves Aaron. In fact, all present turn their attention to him, even the Holy Family. As Aaron closes his eyes and begins to play, they nod in rhythm, and so, we see, does everyone else. The idea that a boy with a drum would be the focus at the cradle of Jesus remains incongruous, yet the moment is strangely affecting.

From a literary point of view, the drummer boy stands in for us, for our sense of wonder and inadequacy before the person of Jesus. The three kings have their treasures, but what could we possibly offer to him? Clearly the answer is, give what you have. Come to him with whatever you have. If the history of the song shows anything, it is that something lovely can come out of it all, even out of pettiness and aggression.

Jim McDermott, S.J., is an associate editor of America.

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