Monday, January 26, 2015

“Christmas Day:” Forgotten Hanby Christmas Essay Shows Mixed Feelings for Holiday

“Christmas Day:”  Forgotten Hanby Christmas Essay Shows Mixed Feelings for Holiday  


"Christmas Day!  

            Blessed day!  Glorious Day!  The birthday of our dear Savior!  How we ought to celebrate it with every possible demonstration of joy!  Yes!  Celebrate it !  Celebrate it; no matter how!  Any way! – Every way!
            Set the bells a ringing!  Beat the drums!  Light the bonfires!  Pop the roman candles at the ladies, as they pass along the sideway!  Let the fire-wheels fizzle!  Send up the sky-rockets!  Let the boys – the big ones – go to a pigeon-hunting; and the little ones throw firecrackers at their sisters!  Tell the rowdies to whoop and halloo till the earth trembles!

                        ‘This is the day that Christ was born.’

            Let every Irishman say his mass, and have a fight!  Let every emigrant from Faderland imbibe a double portion of lager beer!  Let the merchant doze over his newspaper, and the merchant pack up his kit, and betake himself to the club room!
            Let the boss go a sleigh-riding and the apprentices lounge on the work bench and read ‘The Black Pirate!’
      Glorious day!  Grand occasion!  Go to the theatre, for the bills announce an ‘entertainment extraordinary, prepared especially for the occasion!’  Let the drinking houses, the gaming halls, the billiard saloons be crowded to overflowing!  Let the gilded chandeliers throw a mellow light upon the jeweled hand and floating tresses of the ball-room!
The church, too, should not be recreant at such a time!  No!  Let Zion arise and bestir herself!  Let the minister’s house be turned into bedlam, and style the operation with sanctifying title of a donation party!
     Set a Grand Fair on foot!  Get up a mock post-office, some grab boxes, and as many other swindling machines as can possibly be invented, and let the ladies and gentlemen indulge in molasses candy, coffee, compliments, and small talk, til way up in the small hours of the night!  So said, or at least, so acted our people last Christmas Day.
     Glorious Christmas Day!  Equal, if not superior to the Fourth of July, Valentine’s Day, or ‘Hollow Eve!’
                                                          B. R. Hanby”

This short essay, by Westerville’s favorite songwriter Benjamin Hanby, is a recent find.   I do not claim that this is an “unknown” work, but it is at least poorly known.  None of the Hanby scholarship I examined makes reference to it; it is not mentioned in Choose You This Day by Dacia Custer Shoemaker, nor did a quick skim of Judge Earl Hoover’s correspondence turn up any mention of it.  Unknown?   Perhaps not, but a rare gem it appears to be.

 The essay appeared in the Religious Telescope on January 2, 1856.  Before World War 2, the Telescope was the official periodical of the United Brethren Church.  In 1856, Benjamin Hanby was a student at Otterbein University.  It is impossible to say what inspired Hanby to write about Christmas, possibly after the fall term ended on.  Yet its very existence confirms that Christmas was important to Hanby, and was a frequent inspiration in his writings.

 Hanby is probably best known today for his Christmas song, “Up on the Housetop,” a later Christmas creation from 1864.  Although I am not a textual expert, the song and the essay have some things in common. While one is verse and one is prose, both celebrate the Christmas theme in a decidedly secular way.  Hanby, who would become an ordained minister and was no doubt deeply religious, saved his theological musings on Christmas for the carol, “Who Is He In Yonder Stall?” (1866).   Like “Up on the Housetop,” Hanby’s “Christmas Day” is fulsome in praise of conviviality, holiday cheer, and even rowdyism!  Shooting firecrackers at ladies?   Urge beer drinking and pool playing and dancing?  If you think of Ben Hanby as a shy, retiring, bishop’s son, a “pale young curate,” his college student self had other ideas.  One wonders if he put any of his suggestions to use. 

Or was he treating readers to a devout man’s ironic tut-tutting of pagan celebrations?  Read carefully, there is a note of satire in all the exclamation points.  Would a true believer (like Hanby), celebrate drinking houses, gaming houses, and billiard saloons in abstemious, teetotaling Westerville?

There are more clues that Benjamin Hanby was fascinated by Christmas, both basking in Christmas cheer but also casting a wary eye on the secular American celebrations..  There are other nearly forgotten yuletide compositions from his pen. His 1866 collection Chapel Gems included “The Shepherds of Bethlehem,” and “Down from the Skies,” both straightforward church songs for the season.  Compare these with his song, “Christmas Tree,” which borders on the pagan in lines such as:  “The forest king is grandly crown’d. To grace our festal day.”  One might conclude that Hanby understood that Christmas was more than a religious holiday.

The rediscovered essay mentions other holidays, notably his awkwardly spelled reference to “Hollow Eve.”  At a time when Halloween was barely known outside the Irish-American community, his mention of  the holiday is remarkable.  The Oxford English Dictionary which provides early, if not the absolute first, usage of words, is a bit vague with Halloween.  “All Hallow’s Eve,” the original contraction, is dated to the sixteenth century, but the modern form “Halloween” is dated  to 1773 by the OED.  Hanby’s usage dropped, the “All,” kept the “Eve,” and shows the word to be in flux in the early part of the nineteenth century.  If Hanby, a small-town Ohio college student, was familiar with the word, it was probably trickling into common usage.  But Hanby was a scholar of religion, too, and who knows in what obscure text he might have come across this form of the word.  It is also not inconceivable that this form was original to him. 

 “Hollow Eve” aside, it would not be too much of a stretch to say that Hanby was fascinated by holidays, particularly Christmas, even the earthy side of the celebration.  The newly found essay of 1856 and the world-renowned song of 1864 keep company with “Who is He in Yonder Stall?’ and the other hymns he wrote.  Sacred and secular, they show a man with mixed feelings about the holiday that brings such warm memories to all people who have connections to Westerville.

[Sources for this essay include the microfilm edition of the Religious Telescope, the 1901 edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, and Otterbein University’s vertical file on Benjamin R. Hanby.  The website was very useful as well.]

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