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The Little Drummer Boy began as a Christmas carol written under the title “Carol of the Drum” and was first recorded in 1951 by the Von Trapp Family Singers. Maybe you’ve heard of ’em. It was inspired by a long-lost Czech carol, and the French legend of a poor juggler who performs for a statue of the Virgin Mary. The idea of a performer humbly offering their own talents as a gift to a holy figure has been revised and retold in many ways throughout the years (the Tomie De Paola book The Clown Of God is a beautiful example), and has resonated so much in its current form that it’s brought together singers as diverse as Bing Crosby and David Bowie.
I’m willing to bet the song’s popularity is what attracted Rankin-Bass to it, but it still strikes me as an unusual choice for their first stop-motion special made following Rudolph. The R-B roster mainly consists of secular Christmas stories. Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town and Cricket On The Hearth barely touched on the Nativity in their tales. Little Drummer Boy, though? He doesn’t give a figgy pudding for Santa and wholly embraces the biblical side of Christmas. It’s only one of a handful Rankin-Bass specials that do – which means it’s buried beneath the more popular non-Jesusy Rudolph and Frosty outings. Heck, just look at the cover for Little Drummer Boy. Compare the covers for the other Rankin-Bass specials which advertise its celebrity narrator, or that they’re based on some “classic” story by a beloved author. There are TWO Academy-Award winning actors in the cast of Little Drummer Boy, and it’s partly based on what millions of people consider a true story, but instead of playing on that, there’s a cute tagline. Now I may be a tad prejudiced, but I find this to deliberate slighting of this particular Rankin-Bass special a bit unfair. Allow me to elucidate: