Thursday, December 20, 2012

Up on the Housetop: An Early School Memory and a History

This cheerful little carol is the first song I remember learning in school. My school was a new, small Catholic school, and we were taught by nuns in one large room of the Benedictine convent at Linton Hall, Virginia. I believe there were 7 children in my first-grade class and 14 in the kindergarten class. That was the whole school. The next year second grade was added, but there was no kindergarten, just first and second grades.
The room in which we had classes must have been used for a theater of sorts because there was a stage with dark red velvet curtains at the end of the room. Usually our backs were to this stage, but we used it for music class, and it was our performance space for our first ever Christmas program. Now that I think about it, isn't it funny that a secular tune like Up on the Housetop should have been included in the program? I remember that we also sang Jolly Old Saint Nicholas, but that may have been the second year.
Both of these little tunes are thought to have been composed by the same man, Benjamin Hanby. Hanby was born in Rushville, Ohio in 1833 and later moved to Westerville, Ohio. He was the son of a minister and joined his father’s activities with the underground railroad; their home was actually a stop on the railroad. While helping the runaway slaves who passed through their home Hanby composed My Darling Nellie Gray, which he said was based on a story told to him by one of the slaves.

 It is believed that he composed Up on the Housetop in the 1850’s or 1860’s and it is possible that it pre-dates Jingle Bells as the first secular American carol since Jingle Bells was copyrighted in 1857 (and Jingle Bells, you may have noticed, contains not one single Christmas reference-but that's another story). Some scholars believe that Hanby was inspired by the idea of the sleigh landing on the rooftop from The Night Before Christmas by Clement C. Moore, who was the first to suggest the rooftop landing and chimney approach to Santa’s visits in his poem published in 1832. Hanby’s song, however, was the first to focus on Santa Claus and was first titled “Santa Claus.”

Hanby may also have composed Jolly Old St. Nicholas, which is stylistically very close to Up on the Housetop. Authorship of this carol has never been established, however, as no original notes or manuscripts of the song have ever been found.

Mr. Hanby died in 1867 of tuberculosis; he was still a very young man yet he contributed at least two songs to the American tradition with Up on the Housetop and My Darling Nellie Gray. His home in Westerville,Ohio is preserved as a museum with many of the family’s original furnishings, and original manuscripts of Nellie Gray can be seen there.
Here are the lyrics to Up on the Housetop:

Up on the housetop reindeer pause,
Out jumps good old Santa Claus.
Down thru the chimney with lots of toys,
All for the little ones, Christmas joys.

Ho, ho, ho! Who wouldn’t go.
Ho, ho, ho! Who wouldn’t go!
Up on the housetop, click, click, click.
Down thru the chimney with good Saint Nick.

First comes the stocking of little Nell;
Oh, dear Santa, fill it well;
Give her a dolly that laughs and cries,
One that will open and shut her eyes.


Next comes the stocking of little Will
Oh, just see what a glorious fill
Here is a hammer, And lots of tacks
Also a ball, And a whip that cracks.


This is a variation of the third verse:

Look in the stocking of little Bill;
Oh, just see that glorious fill!
Here is a hammer and lots of tacks,
a whistle and a ball and a set of jacks.

And just in case you don't remember this carol, here's a link to one version of it, sung by one of the most famous cowboy singers, Gene Autry.


Copyright 2012 Susanna Holstein. All rights reserved. No Republication or Redistribution Allowed without attribution to Susanna Holstein.


Sue said...

This is one of my very favorites. Thanks for the history!


Chicken Wrangler said...

Thanks for the mini-history lesson. Enjoyed reading and learning from you today!!

Granny Sue said...

Sue, this song really slipped from my memory until Jeff and I began planning our Christmas program. I was intrigued to learn of its connection to the Civil War and the underground railroad. I will be posting about another carol also connected to the war in the next day or two.

Granny Sue said...

Thanks for stopping by, Chicken Wrangler! I hope you and the chickens enjoy a peaceful holiday.

Nance said...

oh would like to hear more of your memories in that 1st grade class . . . with the curtained area behind you. How many of your sisters were there with you?

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