December 21, 2010

Tombstone Tuesday-Benjamin Hanby: "Up On the Housetop"

Otterbein Cemetery, a pleasant and peaceful graveyard in Westerville, Ohio, is the final resting place of many of my Ballenger ancestors. Near their graves is a prominent marker for Benjamin Russell Hanby. Hanby wrote the Christmas carol “Up On the Housetop,” and I thought the holiday season would be the perfect time to share his memorial.

His tombstone reads:
         Over the Silent Sea Passed
         Benjamin R. Hanby
         Mar. 16, 1867;
         Aged 33 Yrs.

         W. O. Hanby, M. D.
         Died Oct. 19, 1879
         Aged 32 Yrs.

         Brainerd O. Hanby
         1859 –1944
         The Last Man - Editor

An accompanying sign, posted by the Westerville Historical Society and Ohio Historical Society, reads:

Song writer and minister of the United Brethren Church. Hanby was an Otterbein College graduate, class of 1858, known throughout the world for the inspiring songs, “Darling Nellie Gray,” “Up On the Housetop,” and “Who is He in Yonder Stall?”
Hanby House in Westerville is maintained as a memorial honoring Benjamin and his father, Bishop William Hanby.

The song’s lyrics give a glimpse into popular toys of the mid-1800s:
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 through 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.  (chorus)

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.  (chorus)

Hanby wrote over 80 songs in his short life, according to Ohio History Central. One of these was “Darling Nellie Gray,” an popular anti-slavery song. Hanby and his father were abolitionists who actively participated in the Underground Railroad, sheltering runaway slaves. In 1842, a runaway named Joe Selby died of pneumonia while hiding at the Hanby house. The story Selby told the Hanbys of his quest to be reunited with his sweetheart, Nellie Gray, before he died made a deep impression on Benjamin, who was nine years old at the time.

Who would think that a simple Christmas carol could lead to such interesting stories?


  1. Interesting. Thank you for sharing.
    Theresa (Tangled Trees)

  2. The lyrics are excellent. Thanks a lot Shelley for sharing this beautiful Tombstone.

  3. The lyrics are excellent. Thanks a lot Shelley for sharing this beautiful Tombstone.

  4. Reading about Benjamin Hanby in a novel entitled Sweeter Than Birdsong. His anti-slavery exploits are chronicled along with the writing of the Nellie Gray story. Googled him and connected with you


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