Defending Unpopular Christmas Songs: “Little Drummer Boy”

Defending Unpopular Christmas Songs: “Little Drummer Boy” December 19, 2023

3BC. 10-year-boy playing a drum outside of a Bethlehem home glowing from inside. Article about the song "Little Drummer Boy" found on in an article by Mark Whitlock titled Defending Unpopular Christmas Songs - Little Drummer Boy. Image created via AI using a prompt by Whitlock and an engine by

The meme creator sums up the “real world” response to “Little Drummer Boy” with snark and humor. “Mary, exhausted, having just gotten Jesus to sleep, is approached by a young man who thinks to himself: ‘What this girl needs is a drum solo.’”

Photograph of a letter board with a joke about the Christmas song, "Little Drummer Boy." Source unknown. As part of the article, Defending Unpopular Christmas Songs - Little Drummer Boy by Mark Whitlock on
Source unknown.

Four truths lie hidden under the lyrics and pa-rum-pa-pum-pum of this 1941 song. Don’t dismiss the song until you’ve wrestled with them.

Article 4 of 4 in the series.
Little Drummer Boy” | “The Christmas Shoes” | “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” | “Mary Did You Know?

Truth #1: It’s Not About the Drum, It’s About the Boy

Originally named, “The Carol of the Drum,” the song is about the one who is giving the gift, not the gift itself.

Most every nativity, TV show, and movie depicting the birth of Christ represents three Magi or kings from far off lands. Christian tradition gives us the names of the wise men as Melchior, Balthasar, and Casper. (Don’t forget Artaban. IYKYK.) In reality, the Bible is silent on how many Magi traveled, were given an audience with Herod, and offered gifts to Jesus. There could have been only two kingmakers or a dozen. We’re fascinated with them because we want to know more. Why did these men travel hundreds of miles following a star to worship a king not yet anointed?

There’s a better question that the Magi and our intrepid drummer should bring to mind: What gift do you bring to Christ?

Jesus spoke about this Himself. Luke records the entire scene in chapters 20 and 21.

Jesus was teaching his disciples and many others in the synagogue, the same one He went through like a college marching band in a china shop only a few days prior. The chief priests, scribes, and elders went into a verbal sparring match with Jesus. And lost. Then Jesus wove a parable about them. The Bible tells us that they, “sought to lay hands on him at that very hour, for they perceived that he had told this parable against them, but they feared the people. So they watched him and sent spies” (Luke 20:19, 20 ESV)

Jesus kept teaching the crowd until the leaders and many who had wealth, perhaps even ill-gotten riches, were in His presence. He then pointed out a living parable happening in front of their eyes in the very synagogue.

Jesus looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the offering box,
and He saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins.
And He said, “Truly, I tell you, this poor widow
has put in more than all of them.
For they all contributed out of their abundance,
but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.”

Give generously this Christmas—and always.

Trivia card about the song "Little Drummer Boy" found on in an article by Mark Whitlock titled Defending Unpopular Christmas Songs - Little Drummer Boy. Image created via AI using a prompt by Whitlock and an engine by

Truth #2: He Doesn’t Play for Pay. And Neither Do You or I.

That Little Drummer Boy didn’t have a record label contract and didn’t go to the stable for a percentage of the gate proceeds. He wasn’t hoping for a payday, to go viral on Insta, or get a better gig in Jerusalem. He was playing from a reservoir of love.

I bet you have already wrestled with whether or not you can do anything to earn your salvation. You’ve decided that you’re not dying in the middle of the ocean in need of a life preserver, but instead, you are food for sharks on the bottom and in need of resurrection. That’s what “dead in our sins” means. (Ephesians 2:1–10 ESV)

I also bet that you’re a lot like me in that I don’t believe in a works-based salvation, but boy, I sure do believe in a works-based abundant life. My stint in time and space will be rewarded or punished based on what I do while I’m still drawing breath.

I don’t want to believe this, but I sure act like I do. Yesterday, I bungled something in my personal life. It was a small foul. The referees on the sidelines of my life might not even have blown a whistle. Nobody else noticed. But I sure felt it. And I actually thought, Well, that will make God say no to what I’m praying for right now.

How bogus is that!

Bible teacher and mentor to many Jack Miller famously said, “Cheer up! You’re a worse sinner than you ever dared imagine, and you’re more loved than you ever dared hope.”

God loves you and me so much that our sins are forgiven… past, present, and future. Our obedience grows out of our love for Him, not as a desperate attempt to curry favor. Think about these passages:

There is therefore now
no condemnation
for those who are in Christ Jesus.
Romans 8:1

But you were washed, you were sanctified,
you were justified in the name of
the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.
1 Corinthians 6:11

I have loved you with an everlasting love;
therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you.
Jeremiah 31:3

“I in them and You in Me,
that they may become perfectly one,
so that the world may know that
You sent Me and loved them even as you loved me.”
John 17:23

See what great love the Father has lavished on us,
that we should be called children of God!
And that is what we are!
1 John 3:1 NIV

Play with confidence this Christmas.

Truth #3: Bring What You’ve Got

As a little boy, my church’s beloved organist-choirmaster, Stephen J. Ortlip, cast me as The Little Drummer Boy in our church’s Christmas extravaganza. I got to lead in our adult choir while playing a drum. I felt so honored. Mr. O loaned me the drum and a pair of drumsticks to practice my pa-rum-pa-pum-pum at home before the big show.

As little boys do, I lost one of the drumsticks. I was an industrious kid, so I wandered my yard and found a stick that I thought would work as a replacement and kept on practicing. As little boys do, I didn’t tell my mom any of this until we were in the car on the way to the dress rehearsal. My mom was horror-stricken. What would Mr. O do? In the Narthex of the church, my mom tried to apologize and promise she’d buy a replacement and take it out of my allowance. I remember her being so worked up about it. I started feeling like I had robbed a bank and burned down the church.

Mr. O comforted her and said, “Ramona, it will be okay. The show must go on. Don’t worry about it.”

He knelt in front of me and put his hand on my shoulder. He looked up at my mom and said, “Besides, the new stick adds some authenticity to his performance.” He looked back and me and winked and I knew everything would be okay. I had no idea what those words meant, but I felt his affirmation.

The song encourages us to worship with whatever we’ve got. We don’t have to be perfect. While Psalm 33 commands the musicians to “play skillfully,” the Psalmists tell us at least five times to “make a joyful noise.”

So back your truck up and unload your best, worst, and in-between. It doesn’t matter.

Play your best for Him. As often as you can.

Truth #4: Don’t Forget the Most Important Line in the Entire Song

The song is a hero’s journey wrapped up in pa-rum-pa-pum-pums. The boy is thrust into a special world where there is a king to be worshiped. He is surrounded by others who can do something he can’t (bring fine gifts). He encounters trials (he is poor). He finds courage and comes to the moment of truth (he plays before the King). Will he fail or will he succeed?

Then, the final line of the song:

Then He smiled at me
Pa rum pa pum pum
Me and my drum.

Never forget: God smiles at You.

Pastor Scotty Smith, who was mentored by Jack Miller (mentioned above), loved to quote a passage from Zephaniah as his way of reminding us of the power and extent of God’s love.

He will rejoice over you with gladness;
He will quiet you by his love;
He will exult over you with loud singing.
Zephaniah 3:17

Jesus smiles at you. He loves you. He feels honored by your worship.

Before you click away to something else, take a few minutes to enjoy my favorite version of “The Little Drummer Boy” from one of Christian Rock’s greatest bands, Whiteheart.

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