Wellesley Faculty Experts Provide Historical Context for Christmas Carols for WGBH, U.S. Postal Service

Little Drummer Boy sheet music
December 18, 2017

WGBH and the U.S. Postal Service called upon Wellesley faculty members for expert historical insight into America’s favorite Christmas carols.

Claire Fontijn, chair of the music department and Phyllis Henderson Carey Professor of Music, joined WGBH Radio’s The Curiosity Desk with Edgar B. Herwick III on an episode about the history of two popular Christmas carols that trace their roots to Massachusetts: “The Little Drummer Boy” and “Jingle Bells.”

Written by alumna Katherine K. Davis, class of 1914, “Little Drummer Boy” has special meaning for Wellesley. “Davis was studying English composition or English literature up until her sophomore year, and then in her junior year decided music was really it," Fontijn said on the program. As a senior, Davis received Wellesley’s Billings Prize for excellence in music. As part of a tradition in recent years, the song has also been performed during commencement.

Inspiration for “The Little Drummer Boy” came to Davis in 1941. “[One day], when she was trying to take a nap, she was obsessed with this song that came into her head and it was supposed to have been inspired by a French song, ‘Patapan,’” explained Fontijn. “And then ‘patapan’ translated in her mind to ‘pa-rum-pum-pum,’ and it took on a rhythm.” The result was “The Little Drummer Boy.”

Over the years, “The Little Drummer Boy” has been recorded by more than 200 artists, ranging from Bing Crosby to Justin Bieber. A prolific composer, Davis authored more than 600 works before her death in 1980. In her will, she left all royalties and proceeds from her music to Wellesley’s music department. (Wellesley holds the copyrights but does not manage permissions for them.) “Today, that money funds, among other things, free music lessons for non-music majors. They’re studying, let’s say neuroscience, this very heady thing, and they can play the piano or play the violin or sing and it gives them a real nourishment for the soul and for the body,” Fontijn said.

Stephen A. Marini, chair of the religion department, Elisabeth Luce Moore Professor of Christian Studies, and professor of religion, served as an advisor on the production of this year’s U.S. Postal Service holiday stamp series called “Christmas Carols.” The series comprises four new stamps inspired by some of America’s favorite Christmas carols: “Jingle Bells,” “Deck the Halls,” “Silent Night,” and “Jolly Old Saint Nicholas.”

The postal service contacted Marini to advise on the songs, and to verify historical information for the series announcement as well as the lyrics for an accompanying songbook. Marini, who got an advance view of the artwork for the stamp series, told Daily Shot writers, “It was an unlikely but enjoyable task, and not the sort of thing Wellesley faculty usually get to do!” He added, “With this project I was able to help a venerable American institution.”

postage stamps

U.S. Postal Service’s “Christmas Carols” stamps