UKULELE MUSING 2020–19 December 2020, No. 53: “Some Old, Old Santa Songs for Today”

When I was quite young—way, way back in the early 1940s—I was more aware of Santa Claus than the Nativity around this time of year.  Hey!  I was only three or four years old.  Anyway, these days when I open up the big red storage box in the cellar marked “Christmas,” I reach for and unwrap “my Santa” first. 

This is a papier mache figure of the rotund gent himself that my mother bought in our local dime store back in 1942.  It’s been in my family ever since and the first bit of holiday décor I set out each year.  Ah, tradition!

As to music from those early days, I remember in grade school (public not parochial) my class singing traditional holiday songs and carols around our classroom Christmas tree just before lunch hour.  There was also the excitement of drawing names for our annual class gift exchange—a twenty-five cent limit!

In Junior High we would have the annual Christmas pageant with boys in bathrobes and dish towels tied to their heads as “shepherds” and “kings” and girls in white dresses with shiny wings and halos. 

The best singer did the “angel solo” and it didn’t matter to anyone that she was Jewish.  For that matter, so was Jesus.  Those were the days.

Anyway, a couple of my favorite songs from those early days were the really old ones: “Jolly Old Saint Nicholas” and “Up on the House Top”—needless to say, Santa Claus oriented!  And there is one more of my childhood favorites, “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” this time from the 1930s

There are differences of opinion about the origins of “Jolly Old Saint Nicholas.” Suffice it to say that it was first published as a poem in the 1860s and subsequently set to music.  It was first published as a song in 1874 in “School Chimes, A New School Music Book” intended for use in grade schools.

Tap or click on the next image or link to give a listen to this jolly oldie with some great guitar picking by Chet Atkins.

Now that you are up to speed on the lyrics, tap or click on the next image or link for a really nice, simple ukulele tutorial for those of you yearning to play this one in chord melody.  Very pretty!

The song “Up on the House Top” has similar roots.  In fact, it is considered as the second oldest secular Christmas song after “Jingle Bells” and the first holiday song to feature Santa Claus!  Who knew? 

It was considered at the time a “follow-up” to the poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas,” better known as “The Night Before Christmas.” 

The song was first published in 1857 in the magazine “Our Song Birds.”   

 These two songs show up on just about every popular Christmas album of the last century.  Here is a rendition with the original lyrics.  Tap or click on the next image or link to hear this one with some nice old-time banjo accompaniment.

And, of course, we need a good ukulele solo here!  Click or tap on the next image or link for a listen.

 Moving on to something a bit more modern, “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town” was first recorded in 1934 by banjoist Harry Reser and his band. No Santa suit here but Reser did dress one of his band in Eskimo costumes. Close enough! 

This song became an instant hit with more than 30,000 records sold within twenty-four hours, to say nothing of a half million copies of sheet music.  Not bad for a simple Santa ditty!

Tap or click on the next image or link to hear Reser and his band with Eddie Cantor doing the vocals—some nice scenes of Christmas past also!

And, of course we have an instrumental version.  Click or tap on the next image or link to hear a delightful mandolin/banjolele version.

So, despite our sequestration, distancing, and absent friends and family, take heart. 

We can still dwell in simpler, safer times when thoughts of Santa’s visit, and visions of songs and sugar plums, danced in our young, young heads. 

Yes gentle readers, Santa is still out there. He may not be able to come into our homes this year, but–no matter what we call it or how we celebrate–the spirit of the season will be in our hearts.

And, of course, don’t forget an appropriately decorated ukulele or two!

So, stay safe, stay warm, stay festive, stay masked  .  .  .

And STAY TUNED! Are those sleigh bells I’m hearing?

Note: I don’t usually add a personal photo to these musing but, as we are getting to the end of this year’s fifty-three weekly postings (whew!), I’m compelled to close with one from a couple of years ago. 

And, remember, some sort of Santa is within us no matter what our age!

Author: NohoBanjo of Northampton and, now, Easthampton, Mass.

Hi friends, neighbors, and fellow strummers. These “musings” are based on my interest and study of Banjo and Ukulele history, lore, and music. My goal is to both educate and enlighten by sharing what I have learned within a broad musical and historical context—with honesty and, at times, a bit of humor. Needless to say, your thoughts and comments are, as always, welcome.

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