Christmas Top 40: Up On The Housetop

by Kevin Burton

   We don’t have Santa images at my house.  For us, Christmas is about Jesus.

   But there is one Christmas song I have always loved that doesn’t fit that mode.  Hundreds of artists have recorded it. Possibly the most famous version was made by Gene Autry in 1953. 

   It was written by Ohio-born Benjamin Hanby in 1864. It’s called Up On The Housetop.

   “According to William Studwell in The Christmas Carol Reader, ‘Up on the Housetop’ was the second-oldest secular Christmas song, outdone only by ‘Jingle Bells’ which was written in 1857. It is also considered the first yuletide song to focus primarily on Santa Claus,” reads the song’s Wikipedia entry.  “It was originally published in the magazine Our Song Birds by Root & Cady.” 

   This tune got a hold on me before I became a self-styled music critic or an amateur purser of song lyrics.  Back then I thought the first lyric, “Up on the housetop reindeer pause” had to do with reindeer paws, not pause.

   OK, so most of you who just laughed at me have no room to talk, based on what you thought all those Elton John songs said!  

   “According to Reader’s Digest Merry Christmas Song Book, Hanby probably owes the idea that Santa and his sleigh land on the roofs of homes to Clement C. Moore’s 1822 poem, ‘A Visit from St. Nicholas’ (also commonly known as “The Night Before Christmas”)” according to Wikipedia. “Hanby was born in 1833 near Rushville, Ohio, the son of a minister involved with the Underground Railroad. During his short life, he wrote some 80 songs before dying of tuberculosis in 1867.” 

   The song has gone through considerable changes – I say improvement – as different artists have had a crack at it, judging from lyrics Wikipedia lists.  According to Wiki the original first verse was:

“Up on the house, no delay, no pause
Clatter the steed of Santa Claus.
Down through the chimney with loads of toys
Ho for the little ones, Christmas joys.”

   You can check with out for yourself with the little ones on your Christmas list, but I’m guessing they don’t know what a steed is.

   Now you know the song by its modern lyrics.

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

   The song’s later verses mention the desired toys and stocking stuffers of the children.  One verse talks about a hammer, lots of tacks, a whistle, a ball, and a whip.  Chances are you won’t be presenting these non-treasures to your little ones this year. 

   Hey this is an old song. You bet it has needed an upgrade or two along the way. When it was written there were 35 states in the union. Andrew Johnson was president. 

    I can’t fully explain why I like the song so much, but it has a lot more to do with the Jackson 5 than Gene Autry.

   Detroit Motown music was among the best the United States has ever produced. Any song given the Motown treatment would really pop. It was no different for Up On The Housetop.

   Rather than the ubiquitous jingle bells, the J5 version starts off with that 60s-70s tambourine before the drums kick in.  This version is actually a medley with snippets of “Here Comes Santa Claus” and “Twas the night before Christmas” included to keep everything moving. The song appears on the 1970 Jackson Five Christmas Album. It’s updated lyrics help us get to know lead singer Michael Jackson’s brothers:

“Tito had just one desire
That he gets a new guitar
But he wants a guarantee
That it won’t play out of key”

   Then later:

“Jackie’s almost six feet tall
But no hot shot at basketball
Bring him a basket three feet low
Maybe he’ll play like a pro”

   And:
“Marlon wears his shoes so thin
He’s gone through his socks again

He’s always dancin’ as you know
(So bring me some shoes with lots of soul!)”

  The chorus, “Ho, ho, ho, who wouldn’t go?
Ho, ho, ho, who wouldn’t go?
Up on the housetop, click, click, click
Down through the chimney with old St. Nick,” has also been improved. On later versions the “click, click, click” part climbs the musical scale and then descends in the “down through the chimney” part.

    Compare the gene Autry version to the J5 and other later versions and note how the newer sound swings.  This song just sounds like Christmas morning.  It would absolutely make my Christmas Top 40 were I crazy enough to create such a thing.

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