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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 a misanthropic orphan who only finds enjoyment from playing his drum for his friends Samson (a donkey), Babba (a sheep), and Joshua (a camel); originally, Aaron was a happy child who lived with his parents who gave him his very own drum as a gift. One night, bandits (in an attempt to take the family's sheep) killed Aaron's parents and razed his house down, thus making him hate all humanity. Due to his playing causing the three animals to dance, Aaron is forced to join Ben Haramad's circus with rather inept performers. When performing in Jerusalem, Aaron becomes infuriated by the townspeople's amusement and lashes out at them, causing them to become angry; Ben and the rest retreat.
Sometime later, they come upon the Three Wise Men's caravan who are following a bright star in the sky. Seizing his chance, Ben greedily attempts to perform for the Wise Men, but they are uninterested as they try to make haste to get to the star's destination. One of the caravan camels becomes too weak to continue traveling, so Ben bargains with them that they use Joshua in exchange for some of their gold; Aaron is upset at this. Later, Aaron and his animal companions later escape (even though Ben could care less since he has plenty of gold and doesn't need him anymore) and joins up with the Three Wise Men as they journey toward Bethlehem. There, upon recognizing Joshua and trying to reunite with him, Babba is hit by a Roman chariot and Aaron takes the sheep to the Wise Men to be healed, but they can't do anything (although one insists that maybe the baby could be of help). Having no gift to bring the baby Jesus, Aaron plays his drum to entertain the child and his family. As gratitude, Babba is healed and runs into Aaron's arms as he feels kindness for the first time in his life.
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.