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The Little Drummer Boy’s Gospel

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Of the many holiday songs which saturate the airwaves during the Advent and Christmas seasons and can be heard played in Christmas concerts, The Little Drummer Boy is perhaps one of the best known. In fact, as Kathy Warnes writes in her article, Katherine K. Davis-The Little Drummer Boy Almost Wrote Itself, “since the 1950’s, The Little Drummer Boy has appeared in over 200 versions in seven languages in all kinds of music genres.” The song has become so popular in fact, that its original author, Katherine K. Davis, is to have said that The Little Drummer Boy “had been done to death on radio and TV,” but that doesn’t seem to stop people from continuing to sing it, or from recording their own versions of the beloved Christmas carol (ibid.).

The story behind the song, originally published in 1941, as The Carol of the Drum, is a bit fuzzy. In fact, there are many versions told as to how the song came to be. One says that Ms. Davis freely translated the song from a Czech Carol; another says that she, Harry Simone, Jack Halloran, and Henry Onorati arranged the song together; while yet another version says that Ms. Davis came up with the song as she was trying to take a nap (ibid.). In any case, while how the song came to be exactly isn’t quite clear, what is clear is that the story of the Little Drummer Boy has become widely known by people everywhere.

The first logical question to ask is why? Why is it that this story of a poor little drummer boy has captured our attention for so many years and never seems to grow out of style?  I want to suggest that it has to do with the meaning the song holds for us on a deeper level. The song is more than just some fairytale about a fictional drummer boy; it is a story which strikes something within the innermost parts of ourselves because it is a story which quite frankly, we would like to live for ourselves. Am I suggesting that somewhere deep inside of each and every one of us is an aspiring drummer boy? Well yes, but let me explain.

The reason this song seems to attract us so easily is that it has three basic qualities which we are naturally attracted to as human beings, i.e., the true, the good and the beautiful. Within the Christian Tradition, to say that we are attracted to these three qualities is to say nothing more than that we are naturally attracted to God, in Whom these three qualities find their apex. Consequently, every created instance of the truly Good, Beautiful and True are expressions of participation in the very life of God, however small or great. The Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it this way:

All creatures bear a certain resemblance to God, most especially man, created in the image and likeness of God. The manifold perfections of creatures—their truth, their goodness, their beauty—all reflect the infinite perfection of God. Consequently we can name God by taking his creatures’ perfections as our starting point, “for from the greatness and beauty of created things comes a corresponding perception of their Creator” (CCC 41; cf. Wisdom 13:5).

In short, because as humans we have been created for nothing less than eternal communion with God, our restless heart always stirs when confronted by that which points to God to the extent to which that something is true, good and beautiful, because in some way, that something gives us a glimpse of what we really long for, God (cf. St. Augustine of Hippo, Confessions, 1.1).

Works of art have the potential to convey these qualities to us, and if done right, they have almost an irresistible ability to make us take the time to contemplate them, even if on a subconscious level, precisely because they have these inherent qualities which attract us to them. In his Summa Theologiae, St. Thomas Aquinas defined art as recta ratio factibilium, right reason with regard to things to be made (ST I-II, Q57.4). For Aquinas, an artist produces a true piece of art when what has been produced reflects the true nature of things, especially its goodness and beauty, such that by its very nature it points to the ultimate end of all things, God. What attracts us to the Little Drummer Boy, then, is that his story, told in lyrical form, has these inherent qualities which speak to our desire for God, and what’s more, gives us a quick guide as to how we are to reach that final destination for which we so desperately long deep within us.

If there is one thing the Gospels tell us over and over again, it is that to be a follower of Christ, we cannot live for ourselves. The life and death of our Savior, as told by the Evangelists and all the New Testament writers, ensures that this reality is not lost on us, that ultimately our lives are not about us. The way to ensure that we live this message out is to imitate the life Our Lord. In his famous Christ Hymn, found in the second chapter of his letter to the Philippians, St. Paul tells us that our imitation of Christ begins with humility. After admonishing his readers to “let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,” Paul goes on to clarify what this means, writing,  “who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped” (Phil 2:6). At the heart of this passage on imitation is the humility of Christ, and who better to teach us a thing or two about humility than a child? Our Lord Himself tells us “unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 18:3-4). 

We find this teaching put into action by the hero of the beloved Christmas song, The Little Drummer Boy. The song begins with our hero being summoned by the Magi, presumably, to pay homage to a newborn king. “Come, they told me,” the Little Drummer Boy recalls as he tells us his story. These three words are central for understanding the underlying meaning of the Little Drummer Boy’s message. The virtue of humility present within our hero has allowed another virtue to be cultivated within him, that of docility. For St. Thomas Aquinas, docility is a virtue annexed to the cardinal virtue of prudence, which deals with practical decision making (ST II-II, Q. 47.2). Accordingly, as a part of the virtue of prudence, the Angelic Doctor writes of docility that its distinguishing mark is “to be ready to be taught” by another in matters that exceed our competency or our simple ability to be aware of some fact (ST II-II, Q. 49.3). It is precisely because our little hero possesses this virtue that he is able to respond naturally to the call of the Magi. If, on the other hand, the Little Drummer Boy were proud or self-centered, he would never have been in a position to respond to the call of the Magi, much less respond so quickly and easily (see ST II-II, Q. 49.3, ad. 2). Eventually, responding to this call is what would lead him to a marvelous opportunity as we will see later. Thus, a message of humility and docility begin the Drummer Boy’s song. 

Humble and docile, the Drummer Boy hears the message of the Magi, telling him that they are bringing their very finest gifts “to lay before the king.” No doubt, the opportunity to see a king would be a great cause for excitement for any young boy. In our mind’s eye we see this young shepherd boy drop everything at once and follow the Magi. In haste, he travels to the stable where the Infant King lay in his mother’s loving arms. But upon arriving, we see our young hero realizes there is a problem, for he is “a poor boy too,” and therefore has no gift that is “fit to give a king.” A young man of great virtue, the Drummer Boy’s prudence quickly leads him to a two-part solution to this problem which many would be shamed into cowardice by, but which the Drummer Boy courageously faces.

For the first thing that our hero recognizes is that this newborn king, is poor, denoted by the word “too.” The words “king” and “poor” simply do not go together in the normal use of any language. Yet, just as before, the Little Drummer Boy is undeterred. Why? Because the King has appeared before the Drummer Boy in a way the latter can identify with. By becoming man, God has made Himself accessible to us lowly humans, bridging the gap between the transcendent and the imminent. Such is the beauty of the Incarnation. The Drummer Boy doesn’t take a second thought to consider how it is that his King is poor, ultimately because children expect those in power to be benevolent, self-sacrificing, and just, in a word, loving (see St. John Henry Newman, An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent, 5.1, 103). Accordingly, whereas for us a “poor king” seems like an oxymoronic expression, it makes perfect sense to our hero. Therefore, he easily moves to the second part of his conclusion, that he has no gift that is “fit to give a king.” This must be the conclusion we arrive at as well. For before the unspeakable largess displayed in the Incarnation, what could we possibly have to offer? In short, all we have is already His; we can give Him nothing He does not already possess (see 1 Cor. 4:7). This is what the humble Little Drummer Boy recognizes so naturally. We can almost picture disappointment on the face of our hero. That is until he realizes that he indeed possesses something that may already belong to the God-child, but that is an utterly unique gift given to him by God, the very song in his heart, his talent.

The insight prompts the elated Drummer Boy to ask, “Shall I play for you, on my drum?” Here we see the beauty of virtue on full display. For the world, humility shirks from greatness, artificially making oneself small for the sake of others. In contrast, for Christians it is precisely humility that makes us capable of striving after great things, i.e., makes us magnanimous (ST II-II, Q. 161.1). This is because humility places us on the trajectory of Christ, imitating His humility so that we might by Him be carried to the heights of heavenly glory (see Phil 2:6-11; cf. 2 Cor 3:18). The humble Drummer Boy, precisely by having identified with the humble King, now steps magnanimously before the manger-throne, offering the Infant King all he is capable of.

Notice please that in this dynamic we see recta ratio factibilium exemplified. The Little Drummer Boy has truthfully discerned the situation he is in through humble prudence informed by charity, providing him the courage to act magnanimously, the desire and willingness to do something great, and indeed through the confluence of these virtues he meets his aspiration.

Mary, the mother of God, seeing the good that has taken place before her very eyes, and deeper still the goodness and truth that the mere presence of the Infant in her arms fast asleep has summoned in the heart of the young Drummer Boy, consents with a gentle nod, perhaps a grin. Here Mary, with a simple nod points the way, approving the appropriate worship of the Child-King, as she likewise does for all followers of Christ who in her humility, find an image of the ideal follower of her Son.

Having gained Mary’s approval, our hero begins to play. Suddenly, all creation erupts in song as the “ox and lamb kept time” for the young musician. The worship of the Drummer Boy seems to be contagious as he has become an example to the rest of creation, which should follow his lead. In this, the Drummer Boy teaches us yet another lesson, this time a profound lesson about the nature of the human person. By its very nature, Alexander Schmemann writes, the human person is homo adorans, i.e., a worshipping being. More specifically, as the liturgical nature of the first story of creation in Genesis suggests (Gen 1:1-27), the human person is a priest by nature:

He stands in the center of the world and unifies it in his act of blessing God, of both receiving the world from God and offering it to God—and by filling the world with this Eucharist, he transforms his life, the one that he receives from the world, into life in God, into communion with him. The world was created as the ‘matter,’ the material of one all-embracing Eucharist, and man was created as the priest of this cosmic sacrament (Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World: Sacraments and Orthodoxy, 22).

The sound of this act of right praise issuing forth from the beating drum prompts the Infant King to open His glorious eyes, and looking up at His young follower He smiles. Ah, to see the smile of our God, what would that be like? Wonderfully amazing no doubt, but for now we must ask ourselves a more tangible and practical question. What has the Little Drummer Boy done to be rewarded with such a glorious gift? It was the way this Drummer Boy played for his King, it was the way he used the talent the Lord gave him.

You see the Little Drummer Boy tells us, “I played my best for him,” his best for the Child whom he recognized as His King. The song he played came from his entire heart, soul, and mind, and he played it with all his virtue, his strength. That is precisely why the baby Jesus smiles. The smile is an indication that in this act of worship the Drummer Boy fulfills the created purpose of the human person, i.e., to make a gift of oneself. To give the complete self is to fulfill the greatest commandment, to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength (Mark 12:29-30). Moreover, not only does our hero fulfill this first part of the Greatest Commandment, but because of the unique situation our hero finds himself in, the Infant lying in the arms of his mother, was, in a very real sense, his neighbor. Thus, the Little Drummer Boy fulfills the latter portion of the twofold command, to love his neighbor as oneself, precisely through this gift of himself. In the actions of our humble hero, then, we find a creative expression of the teaching of the Second Vatican Council, that the human person cannot fully find him or herself, except “through a sincere gift” of self (Gaudium et spes, 24). It is therefore most appropriate that the hero of our song be named by his gift, the “Little Drummer Boy.” His gift of self has truly become his very identity. 

This is precisely what each and every one of us has been called to, and in a world which saturates every single moment of our day with the message that life is about satisfying and glorifying the self, the message of the Little Drummer Boy shouts loudly in disagreement, telling us instead that the only way we may find our true identity, is by making a gift of ourselves. That is, by turning ourselves open to the love of God and love of neighbor, not by turning in on ourselves which can only lead to self-absorption, isolation, and misery. Thus, we too must give our very best to the Child-King by making a gift of ourselves to our God with the whole of our lives, i.e., by presenting ourselves “as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God” (Rom 12:1).  

For the Little Drummer Boy, what made the gift so special, as we have seen, was that it stemmed from the gifts God had given him in the form of a special talent. We all have been blessed, with a distinct personality and set of talents, making the gift of ourselves a one of a kind and unrepeatable gift. The Little Drummer Boy understood this. Faced with the daunting task of trying to find a gift suitable for a king with pockets empty, our hero realizes that the King he stands before desires a gift of true love more than anything else. 

For us, regardless of place or state in life, this is a message of truth, a message of beauty; this is truly Good News. For in the end, it does not matter what we have in our bank account, the car we have in our driveway, how many people are following us on social media, or what cell phone we carry in our pockets. What matters is that in our very person is a gift, a gift that has been dignified by the Incarnation of our King and was meant to be given in love to our God and to one another. This is a gift beyond the standards and judgment of the world for it is the type of gift the world does not recognize. Like our hero, this should not faze us. Instead, we should be inspired to courageously follow his example of playing our best for the newborn King, discerning what role He has created us to play specifically according to the set of gifts He has given to us alone. When we seek to virtuously live out our given vocations, as the Little Drummer Boy did, rather than seeking to achieve worldly success, status, and honor, the pa-rup pum pum pum of the Little Drummer Boy erupts into an entire symphony of worship to Our God. We each have a unique sound to contribute in our individual talents. By properly cultivating, harnessing and directing our talents so as to give glory to God with the whole of our lives (1 Cor 10:31), we take our place in the Little Drummer Boy’s ensemble. There, we too will be gifted with the smile of Our Lord, a smile which says, “Well done, my good and faithful servant…come share your master’s joy” (Matt 25:23).    

Your servant in Christ,