The Little Drummer Boy — Reading Between the Lyrics
As children, my little sister and I took pleasure in watching seasonal movies in anticipation of Christmas. Among our favorites was a stop-motion animation feature based on “The Little Drummer Boy.” I have fond memories of watching Kara imitate the cartoon boy in the film, playing “pa rum pa pum pum” on her own little plastic drum. As children, I saw things so simply — a little boy played the drums for baby Jesus! As an adult, I see profound meanings in the lyrics. So, allow me to be an adult for the moment while I analyze the heck out of this song.
“Come they told me…”
In the song, the birth of a new King brings a quiet curiosity to Bethlehem. At the time of Jesus’ birth, the hierarchy and royalty had privileged access to these sorts of occasions. But this birth was extraordinary in a different way. “Come.” An invitation! But not just any invitation: an open one. It’s no surprise that the Three Wise Men show up with the finest treasures. But shepherds? Animals? A child? All with nothing to offer? Preposterous! Nonetheless, they were all privy to the first moments of Jesus’ earthly life. The event seemed like nothing special, but this was to be the beginning of the greatest story of all time. All are welcome!
“A newborn King to see…”
Drawn in by a bright star in the sky, the Little Drummer Boy reaches the stable where Mary and Joseph are nursing their newborn. To the boy approaching this tiny infant wrapped in old garments, Jesus seemed like nothing special. This… is supposed to be a King? The lyric reveals an oxymoron: “newborn King.” It captures the humility of Jesus’ current state, and the grandeur of what He will become. We don’t usually think of kings being dependent or vulnerable, but Jesus dispels that stereotype immediately. God chose to come to this Earth as a helpless newborn to be raised by earthly parents, despite — and even because of — the living conditions.
“I am a poor boy too…”
If you have the same memories of the animated Christmas TV special, you’ll recall that the Little Drummer Boy is depicted as an orphan. Seeing the infant Jesus for the first time, the little boy relates to him immediately. The baby isn’t rich in possessions either. Jesus instantly becomes approachable and safe. We are often told that God is a relatable God, and here is the first example of that promise. The boy feels so compelled to serve this new acquaintance that he plays a rhythm on his drum as an offering.
“I played my best for him…”
My heart always swells when I hear this lyric! The little boy did his very best for Jesus: he played him a song on his only possession. As a poor young orphan, he isn’t a “someone,” but he is valued and loved by Jesus. We are invited to approach Jesus as little children, and this little boy nailed it. Not just by being a child in age, but also by being of child-like spirit. The boy gave his best to Jesus. He didn’t have a lot to give, but it came from the heart, and that was enough for the mighty King. This holds true for us, here and now. Many of us feel that our best isn’t enough to offer the King of the Universe, the Creator of the World, the Savior of Mankind… but revealing our truest selves to God is enough. You are enough.
“Then He smiled at me…”
Jesus delights in every single one of us, and this line offers us a physical reminder. In prayer, we may wonder how God reacts. Although Jesus is depicted in some art as a stern-faced adult, he was once a child, and undoubtedly smiled and laughed a lot throughout his life! This shows us the human side of God, in the flesh, doing things that we do. God is not indifferent to our needs, works, joys and sufferings. God’s right at the center of it all and very much attuned to us.
At first glance, “The Little Drummer Boy” is a simple children’s song, but it has faithful teachings written between the lines of “pa rum pa pum pums.” Imagine being in this little boy’s shoes as you play your best for the baby Jesus. In his search for God’s acceptance, this character is relatable for each of us. The song assures us that God isn’t interested in our presents as much as our presence. Many times, the commercialization of Christmas distracts from the simple message of the Gospels. Christmas marks the day that the humanity of Earth met the divinity of Heaven in the flesh. But it wasn’t just the fact that Jesus came to Earth, it was the way he did it — with humility, acceptance and an open invitation. All he wants is us in return.