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The story, written by Romeo Muller, is based on the famous Christmas song of that name in which a poor young boy is summoned by the Magi to the nativity where, without a gift for the infant Jesus, he plays his drum while remembering "I played my best for Him" and "He smiled at me". The special expands on this limited story to include events before the birth of Jesus. In the special, the narrator (Greer Garson) tells of young Aaron who is an misanthropic orphan who only finds enjoyment from playing his drum for his friends Samson (a donkey), Babba (a sheep), and Joshua (a camel). Forced to join Ben Haramad's circus, due to his playing causing the three animals to dance, the group later escapes and joins up with the Three Wise Men's caravan who are on their way to Bethlehem. There, Babba is hit by a Roman chariot and Aaron takes the sheep to Jesus to be healed. Feeling gratitude after being shown kindness for the first time in his life, and having no gift to bring the baby, Aaron plays his drum to entertain Jesus and His family.
The 1968 television special is a stop motion animated film produced by Rankin/Bass. Originally sponsored by the American Gas Association, the film premiered on December 19, 1968 on NBC, where it aired annually for many Christmas seasons. NBC halted it in 1984. CBS aired it annually from 1985 to 1988, until ABC began to air it. ABC cut it from its Christmas schedule in 2006. It still continues to air in the U.S. on the ABC Family cable channel, and it has been airing annually on Canadian channel Treehouse TV since 2005.
In 1976, Rankin/Bass produced a sequel, titled The Little Drummer Boy, Book II, again sponsored by the American Gas Association. It premiered on December 13, 1976 on NBC and like its predecessor, has also aired on the ABC Family cable channel. In this sequel, written by Julian P. Gardner, Aaron and his animal friends team up with Melchior, one of the Three Wise Men, to protect silver bells, made to ring for Christ's arrival, from a band of greedy Roman soldiers. Warner Archive released The Little Drummer Boy Book II, in a collection called Rankin/Bass TV Holiday Favorites Collection.