Classic Christmas Tune "The Little Drummer Boy" Boasts a Fuzzy Origin Story

Among the sea of classic Christmas songs is "The Little Drummer Boy," which sees a boy bang on his drum in celebration of baby Jesus. Was he real?

Bianca Piazza - Author

Dec. 20 2022, Published 4:30 p.m. ET

'The Little Drummer Boy'
Source: Rankin/Bass Productions

As we adorn our trees with gaudy little ornaments and wrap gifts for our loved ones, it's comforting to set the tone for the crisp-yet-warm holiday season with music. From 1944's now-controversial "Baby It's Cold Outside" (which was initially written as a cheeky invitation to leave, not to stay) to 1994's super festive tune "All I Want for Christmas Is You," there's an abundance of catchy tracks synonymous with the holidays.

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On a more somber note, "The Little Drummer Boy" has filled our thumping hearts with the sound of a beating drum since 1941. Originally written by American composer Katherine Kennicott Davis ‚— who published under the named C.R.W. Robertson — as "Carol of the Drum," the song sees a poor young boy visit Jesus Christ on his very first birthday, bearing the gift of music.

"Little baby / Pa rum pum pum-pum / I am a poor boy too / Pa rum pum pum-pum / I have no gift to bring / Pa rum pum pum-pum / That's fit to give our King / Pa rum pum pum-pum," the lyrics go. Though the wise men come bearing material items, with the Virgin Mary's permission, the boy plays his very best for the biblical newborn.

With his mighty drum, his uplifting spirit, and his humble generosity, the Little Drummer Boy is a beloved Christmas figure. So, is he a work of fiction, or was the little guy real?

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Drummer Boy
Source: Getty Images

Was "The Little Drummer Boy" based on a real person?

As a preface, we have to discuss the muddy origins of the song.

According to Classic FM, "The Little Drummer Boy" was initially described as "a Czech carol freely transcribed by C.R.W. Robertson." The plot thickens, however, as musicologist Claire Fontijn believes that Katherine Kennicott Davis based her song on the French Christmas carol "Patapan."

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“[One day], when she was trying to take a nap, she was obsessed with this song that came into her head and it was supposed to have been inspired by a French song, ‘Patapan,’” explained Claire Fontijn, per Wellesley College. “And then ‘patapan’ translated in her mind to ‘pa-rum-pum-pum,’ and it took on a rhythm.”

The St. Joseph News-Press also touched on the controversy surrounding the song's origins, letting Suzanne Lehr, a St. Joseph Museum research associate, explain the conflict away.

“There was some question as to how original it was, because it’s closely related to an old Czech lullaby, and yet it’s not the same,” she said. “[Katherine Kennicott Davis] says, and has always said, that the music for this came to her as she was drifting off to take a nap.”

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Source: YouTube/Pentatonix

Either way, there's no evidence to suggest that the star of "The Little Drummer Boy" is based in reality. Biblically speaking, daily devotional Our Daily Bread even relayed that "there isn’t any reference to a drummer boy in the Christmas story in Matthew 1–2 and Luke 2."

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Symbolically speaking, as detailed by Classic FM, the little guy's resilience, dedication, and strength can be connected to the brave, unarmed drummer boys of the U.S. Civil War, who drummed on the battlefield to keep time and provide a tempo for the marching soldiers. At the same time, "The Little Drummer Boy" is a peaceful tune void of war, so perhaps this is a stretch.

Eight decades later, the calming "pa rum pum pum-pums" of "The Little Drummer Boy" still fill homes annually. Whether you enjoy the 1951 version by the Trapp Family, the 1963 version by Johnny Cash, or even the 2011 version by Justin Bieber, you surely listen to the song every Christmas.

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