“Up On the Housetop” is considered as the second oldest in the list of Christmas songs. (“Jingle Bells” holds the first position and is dated back to 1857.) Crafted in 1864, “Up on the Housetop” is also acclaimed as the first Yuletide song that focused fundamentally on Santa Claus.
According to prevalent public opinion, the concept of the song is probably inspired by “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” an 1822 poem by Clement C. Moore. This song was also popularly known as “The Night Before Christmas.”
The creator of “Up on the Housetop,” Benjamin Russell Hanby was born in Rushville, Ohio to the local Bishop William Hanby, who was involved in the administration of the Underground Railroad. Ben Hanby had endured a difficult time while taking care of his pastoral duties. He had an alternative view on the Church music prevalent at that time, as well as on children’s education. He also vehemently opposed slavery, which made it a tad more difficult for him to blend with the conservative fraternity.
In 1864, he twice resigned from his position in two separate churches and was struggling to make a living for his family. He ran a singing school, and also crafted music for the “John Church Music Company,” which wasn’t enough to take care of his wife and children. He finally passed away in 1867, after suffering from tuberculosis. Ben Hanby had crafted and published over 80 songs during his short lifetime - he was only 33 years old at the time of his demise.
The original version of the carol consisted of 4 stanzas along with a chorus. In one of its initial performance at a children's service, Benjamin Hanby's students had performed the chorus. In 1864, another performance was staged at a Christmas charity dinner for needy and poor children. This program was sponsored by an organization called "The Society of Friends."
In October 1866, the 4th issue of the quarterly magazine "Our Song Birds" published a refurbished version of the song. The issue was titled "The Dove" and was published and edited by "Root & Cady" and Hanby of Chicago, respectively. The revised version had 2 additional stanzas, and was added by "Paulina." Originally titled as "Santa Claus," the song was further included in a compilation titled "Chapel Gems for Sunday Schools" by Hanby and Root. It was again republished by the John Church Music company in the following year. However, Hanby passes away prior to this republication.
The Modern Era
In 1992, “Up on the Housetop” was presented in a modernized cinematic platter, as a syndicated television adaptation was released by “Perennial Pictures Film Corporation.” The story portrayed the desires of a miserable man, who questions the presence of Santa Clause. However, on Christmas Eve, an unknown entity descends on his roof, and the protagonist is left to wonder about its identity.
The song received a modern rebirth again In 2005 when the eminent singer-songwriter Kimberley Locke reignited its popularity through a new recording. The composition set a Billboard record and eventually made a spectacular leap in the history of “AC chart,” breaking into the Top 5. It gained 27 places within the span of a week and also held the record of the 2nd longest chart-topper in the history of Billboard by holding the number 1 position for four consecutive weeks.
Usage in Popular Culture
- In 1956, Larry Hooper and Lawrence Welk with created a cover titled "High On The Housetop," albeit with similar melody but modified lyrics.
- The American band, "The King Sisters," crafted an alternative cover for the song.
- In 1961, the song as used in the movie titled "Christmas with The Chipmunks."
- In 1962, Eddy Arnold used the song in his Christmas Album.
- In 1963, the song was used by "Don Janse and his 60 Voice Children's Choir." The solo halves of the song are performed in the second verse by protagonist Angel Velasco's father.
- In 1970, the eminent pop band The Jackson 5 used the song in their Christmas album. Their version starts with a tribute to Santa Claus and also referred to traditional basketball games that are played during Christmas. The cover further illustrates a visit from St. Nicholas.
- In 1994, musician Sammy Kershaw created a rendition of the song titled "Christmas Time's A-Comin'."
- In 1996, the singer and songwriter Jimmy Buffett used a version of the song in his album "Christmas Island."
- In 1999, Reba McEntire used a version of the song in her album "The Secret of Giving: A Christmas Collection."
- George Strait, the American country music artist, used two separate renditions of the song in 2006 and 2008 in his albums "Fresh Cut Christmas" and "Classic Christmas" respectively.
- In 2008, Bradley Joseph utilized a version of the song in his 15th studio album "Classic Christmas."
- In 2009, the song was used by the band "The Airmen of Note" in their album "Cool Yule."
- In 2009, Fariborz Lachini used a solo piano version of "Up on the Housetop" in his album "Christmas Piano."
- In 2010, the musical duo "Pomplamoose" crafted a rendition of the song for a television commercial of "Hyundai Elantra." The song was also featured on the soundtrack of the album "Grumpy Cat's Worst Christmas Ever."
- In 2016, the Cappella group "Pentatonix" used the song in their 5th studio album "A Pentatonix Christmas ."
Benjamin Russell Hanby, in spite of his limited lifetime, managed to leave a lasting imprint in the musical sphere. "Up On the Housetop" has a special fan following - the children. His contribution to holiday music was truly enduring, as he went on to craft more popular carols, namely "Jolly Old St Nicholas." This composition is contemporary to "Up on the Housetop" and has strikingly similar lyrics and music. The chronological and stylistic features of "Up on the Housetop," along with its unadulterated anonymity, elicits an already proven conjecture that Hanby was indeed a sparkling talent.
"Up on the Housetop" was probably the first American song that exuberantly manifested the Santa Claus theme. It is also accredited as one of the earliest entirely secular compositions of Christmas songs in the United States of America. It was truly a temporal classic.