The story of the little drummer boy is a popular Christmas tale, but it is not found in the Bible. The little drummer boy first appeared in 1941 in a book titled The Little Drummer Boy by Katherine K. Davis. In the story, a young poor boy plays his drum as a gift for the newborn Jesus after being told he is too poor to afford a proper present. The little drummer boy has since become a prominent figure in Christmas culture and entertainment despite having no biblical basis.
There are several biblical accounts of the birth of Jesus, but none include a drummer boy. The Gospels of Matthew and Luke provide details about Jesus’s birth in Bethlehem, the visit of the magi or wise men, and the announcement to the shepherds. However, there is no mention of a drummer boy visiting the manger where Jesus was born.
Some key points about the biblical birth narratives:
- Jesus was born in Bethlehem to Mary and Joseph (Matthew 1:18-2:12, Luke 2:1-7).
- Angels announced Jesus’s birth to shepherds who were watching their flocks at night (Luke 2:8-20).
- Wise men from the East followed a star to Bethlehem and offered gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the young child Jesus (Matthew 2:1-12).
- King Herod tried to kill Jesus, so Joseph fled to Egypt with Mary and the baby until Herod’s death (Matthew 2:13-18).
While these accounts describe visitors and witnesses to Jesus’s birth, there are no drummers, poor boys, or improvised gifts mentioned. The image of the little drummer boy reflecting on what gift he can offer to the newborn King has become a popular Christmas theme, but it does not originate from Scripture.
Some reasons the little drummer boy is not found in the Bible:
- The Gospels give no indication of anonymous children or poor boys visiting the manger.
- The biblicalaccounts focus on the shepherds, magi, Mary, Joseph, and Jesus. Other visitors are not mentioned.
- Drumming and percussion instruments are not mentioned in connection with Jesus’s birth.
- The little drummer boy story seems to have first emerged in the 20th century.
- Bible scholars do not cite any ancient sources or traditions about a drummer boy and Jesus.
While the little drummer boy is not himself a biblical figure, some aspects of his story do resonate with biblical themes:
- Giving gifts to Jesus is portrayed in the story of the magi (Matthew 2:11).
- Children can be an example of humility and service (Matthew 18:2-4).
- God cares for the poor and downtrodden (Luke 6:20-21).
- Jesus accepts even small acts of worship (Mark 12:41-44).
The tale of the unseen, humble little drummer boy offering the only gift he can to the newborn King remains a touching part of Christmas tradition. While not biblical, the story captures some important spiritual themes about generosity, simplicity, and worshiping Christ in the ways we can. For generations to come, the little drummer boy is sure to remain a symbol of Christmas wonder, even if he never appears in the pages of Scripture.
Examining the biblical birth narratives
Since the Gospels of Matthew and Luke contain the key details about Jesus’s birth, it is worth looking closely at their accounts to see what they record about the historical event. There are no drummers or shepherd boys mentioned, but we do find emphases on these key figures:
Mary and Joseph
Mary was a virgin betrothed to Joseph when she miraculously conceived Jesus through the Holy Spirit (Matthew 1:18, Luke 1:34-35). Joseph was of the line of David (Matthew 1:20). Both Mary and Joseph lived in Nazareth, but they traveled to Bethlehem for the census and that is where Jesus was born (Luke 2:4-7). The Gospels stress Mary’s purity and Joseph’s protection over Jesus from Herod’s massacre of children (Matthew 2:13-14).
The angel and shepherds
An angel announces the good news of Jesus’s birth to nearby shepherds keeping watch over their flocks at night (Luke 2:8-14). The angel tells the shepherds where to find the baby lying in a manger in Bethlehem. The shepherds visit the child and spread the news about him (Luke 2:15-18).
Men from the East whose occupation deals with studying the stars come to worship Jesus sometime after his birth (Matthew 2:1-2). They inquire about the location of the King of the Jews and follow a star to find him in Bethlehem, offering him expensive gifts. The magi or wise men were likely astronomers and astrologers from Persia or Arabia.
These key figures surround Jesus at his birth and testify to his significance. There is no report of other witnesses, common boys, or drummers joining the scene.
The origin and history of the little drummer boy story
The little drummer boy first appears in a 1939 book titled The Little Drummer Boy by writer Katherine K. Davis. The story encapsulates the drums-as-gift idea and the lyrics “Come they told me, pa rum pum pum pum” which became the basis for the popular Christmas song “The Little Drummer Boy.”
In 1958, producer Romeo Muller adapted the story into a television show for NBC starring the Austrian von Trapp family singers. He also wrote the lyrics for the “Carol of the Drum” with music composed by Katherine K. Davis. This song brought the drummer boy tale to wider audiences.
Since then, the little drummer boy has been retold through animated films, stage productions, and holiday music. His character captures public imagination as one who uses his humble talents to honor Christ at his birth even though he is not actually mentioned in the nativity story.
Speculation as to origins include:
- Katherine K. Davis possibly drew inspiration from medieval miracle plays which sometimes added apocryphal characters not mentioned in the Gospels.
- The idea of playing music as a gift to Christ may have been influenced by biblical imagery of praising God through music (Psalm 150:3-5).
- The theme of being poor or lowly yet generously giving what you can mirrors Jesus’s lesson about the widow’s mite (Mark 12:41-44).
However, there are no clear ancient sources that Katherine K. Davis pulled from. The little drummer boy seems to have been a creative Christmas addition rather than based on any specific traditions before the 20th century.
Parallels and themes connecting the story to Scripture
Despite having no direct biblical basis, the tale of the little drummer boy has some meaningful overlaps with biblical messages:
Giving gifts to Jesus
Bringing gifts to honor Christ reflects the Magi’s gifts of great value that were fit to worship a King (Matthew 2:11). The little drummer boy’s gift is humble, but he gives what he can out of devotion.
The boy’s simplicity and lack of material possessions mirror Jesus’s teaching that the Kingdom belongs to the childlike. Children’s dependent hearts can teach us humility and faith (Matthew 18:2-4).
Caring for the poor
The little drummer boy is poor, but his poverty does not exclude him from worshiping Christ. God cares deeply for the poor and invites all to come to him (Luke 6:20-21).
Small acts of devotion
Though drumming seems like an odd and minimal gift, Christ accepts even small acts of adoration out of sincere motive (Mark 12:41-44). It is the heart behind the gift that matters.
These biblical connections help explain why the story continues to resonate. Though not literally true, it contains spiritual truth about giving generously to Christ no matter one’s status or means.
Significance of the magi and shepherds in Matthew and Luke
The Gospel writers shape their birth narratives around the magi and shepherds for key theological purposes:
- Represent Christ’s kingship – their gifts signify his identity as King.
- Signify Jesus came as Savior for all nations – the Gentile magi traveled from afar to worship him.
- Fulfill prophecy of the nations coming to the Messiah (Isaiah 60:3).
- their search for meaning led them to Christ, showing Jesus as the answer to spiritual search.
- Represent the outcast – shepherds were a despised class, yet Jesus came for poor and marginalized.
- Signify Jesus as the good Shepherd who cares tenderly for his sheep (John 10:11).
- Echo King David’s roots as a shepherd called to lead Israel.
- Their inclusion shows Christ welcomes the unimportant and lowly.
These key figures surround Jesus in regal splendor and lowly poverty. Together they signal his coming as the promised King and Savior for all – rich and poor, insider and outsider, Jew and Gentile. The little drummer boy, though fictional, resonates with those who feel insignificant yet long to worship Christ.
The influence of extra-biblical traditions
The little drummer boy likely drew upon non-biblical traditions and legends that sprang up about Jesus’s birth over the centuries. Apocryphal stories and medieval mystery plays took creative license to imagine additional details not in Scripture.
Examples of extra-biblical additions include:
- Protoevangelium of James – Portrays a midwife at Jesus’s birth.
- Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew – Says Jesus was born in a cave.
- Medieval plays added characters like a tanner and his wife who provide lodging for Joseph and Mary.
Extra-biblical stories expanded Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem and time in the manger with local color. Though fictitious, they reflected a desire to imagine unseen details. The little drummer boy likely fits in this tradition of creative embellishment for storytelling purposes. However, the Gospels give no basis for his presence.
Should the little drummer boy be viewed as a biblical character?
Given the lack of any scriptural evidence for the little drummer boy and his late entrance into the Christmas story in 1941, he should not be viewed as an actual biblical character like Mary, Joseph, the shepherds or magi.
Reasons he should be considered an extra-biblical, fictional addition:
- No Gospel writer mentions him.
- No early church history or tradition records him.
- No archeological evidence substantiates his existence.
- His story relies entirely on 20th century literary imagination.
- Biblical scholarship does not find him historically authentic.
However, though literally fictional, he can represent biblical values that make his story compelling:
- Humility – he offers his simple gift though unimportant.
- Generosity – he plays his best with a willing heart.
- Worship – his playing is an act of honor and adoration.
- Inclusion – Jesus accepts this marginalized child’s offering.
The little drummer boy captures the Christmas spirit of worshiping Christ with what we have. His story can still convey deep meaning for many at Christmas time through the values it embodies.
The tale of the poor young drummer boy visiting the baby Jesus remains a heartwarming part of Christmas culture though not actually a biblical narrative. No drummer appears in the Gospels’ accounts of shepherds and magi worshiping the newborn Christ. The story likely developed from extra-biblical traditions adding imagined details about Jesus’s birth. While literally fictional, the drummer boy still represents beautiful themes of generosity, humility, and using one’s gifts to worship Christ. For generations to come, his character is sure to inspire those who connect to Christmas in the simplicity and wonder he evokes.