Last week, I wrote about my emotional connection to Judy Garland’s version of Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas. The lyrics in her version, written for the movie Meet Me in St. Louis, read, “Someday soon we all will be together, if the fates allow. Until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow” and always makes me feel nostalgic (Frank Sinatra’s version went more festive, which is how “Hang a shining star upon the highest bough” came to replace Garland’s more melancholic lyric).
I recently regaled Steve, my guitar teacher, with the story of hearing it on the radio while living in England and feeling an intense longing for home. I planned to learn Judy’s version for this holiday season. Just imagine me telling last week’s story, but with a lot of hand gestures and melodrama.
“…and there won’t be a dry eye in the house!” I finished, gleeful at the idea of bringing everyone to tears.
“Mmmmm Hmmmmm,” Steve nodded. “Ok. But let’s learn Up On the Housetop.”
Izzie chimed in. “Wait, what? No. We’re learning Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas!”
So we did. And it was … awful. Truly terrible. The Am7 to B7 chord change on “have to muddle through somehow” is so far out of our vocal range it doesn’t share a zip code. Izzie and I can both play our instrument, but neither of us has ever had any vocal coaching. Every time we attempted “have to muddle,” Steve’s jaw would clench slightly, though he tried valiantly to keep a blank face. Why did we think we could ever do Judy Garland justice? Or Frank Sinatra, for that matter?
After wasting about 40 minutes of lesson time on it, Steve finally said, “Up On the Housetop?” and we grudgingly agreed. The Gene Autry version is four chords, written in the key of D, with easy vocals. Dang it if Steve wasn’t right.
Then I googled the history of the song and became officially obsessed with it.
First of all, Up On the Housetop, written by Benjamin Russell Hanby in 1864, is considered the second oldest Christmas song after 1857’s Jingle Bells. Since Jingle Bells was actually written as a drinking song and first sung at Thanksgiving instead of Christmas, I would argue that Up On the Housetop is actually our first holiday classic.
Here’s why that matters. Benjamin was the son of Ohio Bishop William Hanby. Bishop Hanby, a staunch and vocal opponent of slavery, helped run Ohio’s section of the Underground Railroad, which offered a safe and fast route for enslaved people running toward freedom. William got his young son involved in abolitionist activities.
Benjamin Hanby grew up to become a pastor himself, risking his life many times housing runaway slaves. One such slave, Joseph Selby, found refuge with Ben, telling how he planned to escape north and make enough money to buy the freedom of his true love, Nelly Gray, who had been sold as a slave to a Kentucky plantation. Selby died before fulfilling his dream, but Hanby never forgot about him, later writing his most famous song, Darling Nelly Gray, about the incident. This did not sit well with the conservative members of his church, who vocally deemed all musical instruments as “Satan’s tools.” Hanby responded with even more liberal sermons, and started including songs in his ministry. He finally was forced to resign and started a singing school in Ohio for children.
Inspired by the 1822 poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” by Clement C. Moore, Hanby wrote Up On the Housetop. This was scandalous at a time when Jesus was seen, by conservative Christians, as the reason for the season, and a full six years before Ulysses S. Grant made Christmas a Federal holiday. Santa Claus was a tolerated tradition for children of European immigrants, as long as it was a tradition that stayed in the home. Secular holiday songs would not be sung at holiday gatherings for many years to come.
It was courageous for Hanby, a so-called Man of God, to suggest that the magic of Christmas can exist beside the Bethlehem story, each exaggerated telling supporting the overall enchantment of the season.
Ho. Ho. Ho. Who wouldn’t go?
I would. And I did.