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virtual advent 2019: merry little (melancholy? celebratory?) christmas

This holiday season is shaping up to be a challenging one for me. I’m currently underemployed (read: no budget for holiday shopping), and I’m dealing with family issues that have me traveling regularly across North America. It’s draining and defeating.

But I still have hope.

And that’s why the song “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” resonates with me – especially in its more melancholy form and not the more celebratory revision that’s more popular with modern artists.

“Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” was written by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blaine for the 1944 movie, Meet Me In St. Louis. This movie is one of Judy Garland’s strongest roles, one that broke her out of the “perpetual teenager” typecasting that had dominated her film roles post The Wizard of Oz.

Martin and Blaine wrote the song for a scene where Garland’s character, having just learned that her family is moving to New York City and leaving St. Louis on the eve of the 1904 World’s Fair, comforts her young sister by singing about happier days to come, even when the world seems to be crashing down.

Have yourself a merry little Christmas
Let your heart be light
Next year all our troubles will be out of sight

Have yourself a merry little Christmas
Make the yuletide gay
Next year all our troubles will be miles away

Once again as in olden days
Happy golden days of yore
Faithful friends who are dear to us
Will be near to us once more

Someday soon we all will be together
If the fates allow
Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow
So have yourself a merry little Christmas now

Lyrics by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blaine © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC

I love the timeline of these lyrics. The repetition of “next year” gives an air of certainty that things will improve by next Christmas, that friends will be waiting at the other side of the troubles.

And the clincher for me: the closing verse, where there’s acknowledgement that there is some uncertainty to it all, and that “we’ll have to muddle through somehow” and make the most of what’s in the here-and-now.

It’s a very poignant song, especially for how short it is.

Note that the original lyrics were far more dire:

Have yourself a merry little Christmas
It may be your last
Next year we may all be living in the past

Original lyrics for “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” by Martin/Blaine

This proved too dark for the movie’s producers and for its star, who felt that such a lyric would make her character “think I’m a monster,” so the less dire yet more melancholy lyrics were drafted and used.

If these lyrics don’t seem quite right to certain ears, it’s because in 1957 Frank Sinatra (who was recording his album A Jolly Christmas) went to Martin and Blaine requesting a more positive lyric than one about muddling through troubles. Thus the “hang a shining star upon the highest bough” line that more people know and love.

That said, my favorite is still the original lyric from Meet Me In St. Louis as it speaks to the challenges I face this holiday season. Things will get better, but for now I must wade through the problems laid out before me.

Here are two favorite covers of the melancholy version of the song. The first is by James Taylor, who strikes a lovely balance and perfect cadence for the lyrical content.

The second is a more upbeat jazz cover by the inimitable Ella Fitzgerald. The beat is more uptempo, but the lyric is still the same wistful one that I adore.

And of course, there’s the original with Judy Garland – how can this not be included?

Let me know in the comments if you have a particular version of this song you prefer.

Thanks to Wikipedia and NPR for helping with research for this post.

This post is part of sprite’s Virtual Advent 2019.

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