Pa-rum-pa-pum-pum! That line has become synonymous with the Christmas season as part of the beloved carol “The Little Drummer Boy.” The song is believed to have been written by Katherine K. Davis, and it was first recorded in 1951. The lyrics are in the first person, and the speaker is a little drummer boy at the manger scene who had nothing to give baby Jesus but his drum solo. The song is sweet, reverent, and imaginative, but, no, the little drummer boy is not in the Bible.
The Bible gives us highlights of many events throughout history, but it leaves a lot more to the imagination. For example, when the Bible lists genealogies, it skips over decades full of details in each person’s life (Matthew 1; 1 Chronicles 1). Each of those people had daily lives filled with loves, hurts, mistakes, and relationships, but we can only speculate about the details. This holds true for the birth of Jesus as well. Matthew and Luke give us some details about Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, but we are not told everything.
Luke tells us that a group of shepherds visited the manger where the newborn Christ was laid. Matthew tells us of a group of magi from the East who visited Jesus in Bethlehem (but not necessarily at the manger). Neither gospel writer mentions the presence of a little drummer boy—or the presence of animals, for that matter. Traditional manger scenes that depict a little drummer boy, cows, sheep, donkeys, etc., are displaying creative additions to the biblical story.
What we know from Scripture about the birth of Jesus is this:
• He was conceived through an act of the Holy Spirit inside a virgin named Mary (Matthew 1:18, 23, 25; Luke 1: 26–38).
• Mary was engaged to a man named Joseph (Luke 1:26–27).
• Mary and Joseph lived in Nazareth, a town in Galilee (Matthew 2:23; Luke 1:26), but they traveled to Bethlehem in compliance with an order by Caesar (Luke 2:1–4).
• Jesus was born in Bethlehem (Matthew 2:1; Luke 2:4–7).
• Jesus’ first bed was a manger because there was no room in the inn (Luke 2:5–7).
• A group of shepherds visited Jesus in the manger (Luke 2:8–20).
• Joseph and Mary made a trip to the temple in Jerusalem in fulfillment of the Law of Moses (Luke 2:22–39).
• The magi visited Jesus (Matthew 2:1–12).
• Joseph and Mary fled to Egypt to escape Herod’s cruelty (Matthew 2:13–18).
• Mary and Joseph returned to Nazareth (Matthew 2:23; Luke 2:39).
Whether or not a little drummer boy ever visited Jesus in the manger is not told to us. There were naturally many people who interacted with Jesus about whom the Bible is silent, and the silence of Scripture fuels the imagination of some. But there is not a hint of a little drummer boy in Scripture, and there are no biblical grounds for believing he was at the manger. The little drummer boy is a charming character in a fictional narrative.
Many books, poems, and songs have been crafted that give fictional accounts of the lives of Bible characters and the time of Christ. Novels such as The Robe by Lloyd Douglas, The Silver Chalice by Thomas Costain, The Bronze Bow by Elizabeth George Speare, and Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ by Lew Wallace are examples of historical fiction set in the time of Christ. Poems depicting biblical events include “The Donkey” by G. K. Chesterton, “In the Bleak Midwinter” by Christiana Rossetti, and of course Paradise Lost by John Milton. Such works of art can be helpful in revealing what life in those days might have been like, but they are not to be taken as fact.
However possible it may be, the existence of a little boy with a drum who played a song for Jesus is very unlikely. There may have been visitors besides the shepherds to the stable that night, but most mothers of newborns would require silence, not the banging of a drum, near their sleeping infants.
Any song that directs our thoughts toward the wonder of God becoming man is a good song, and “The Little Drummer Boy” does that. The song correctly points to the humble nature of Christ’s birth as a way to identify with Him and an invitation to approach Him: “I am a poor boy, too,” says the little drummer boy. Also, the song reminds us that we may not have much to give, but whatever we have we can offer to the Lord. We give Him our best, for He is worthy. Whether it be a widow’s mite (Mark 12:33–34), a jar of costly perfume (Luke 7:37–38), or a drum solo, Jesus deserves the best, along with our love. Pa-rum-pa-pum-pum!