In a difficult year, 'Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas' speaks to us more than ever
Rudolph, Frosty, Nestor the Donkey, thanks for your service. You can take 2020 off.
For this bittersweet Christmas, only one song will do. You know it already — but do you?
"Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" has been neutered over the years. Its poignance — which was its point — has been obscured, painted over, in dozens of cover versions and TV specials. But it speaks to this Christmas of COVID like no other song.
"It tells you you've got to make the most of things, the best of things, and keep hoping," said film historian John Fricke, author of "Judy Garland: World's Greatest Entertainer," "Judy: A Legendary Film Career," and several monumental books on "The Wizard of Oz."
It was Judy Garland who introduced the song, in the 1944 film "Meet Me in St. Louis." But the version many of us know now has had its edges blunted, its power softened, by some small but telling changes.
To get down to cases: Any rendition that has the line "Hang a shining star upon the highest bough" has been watered down.
The original line was "Until then, we'll have to muddle through somehow." And where many performers sing "From now on our troubles will be out of sight," Judy Garland originally sang "Next year all our troubles will be out of sight."
How much do such tweaks matter? A lot. Arguably, they change the whole meaning of the song.
"Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" comes at a dark, intense moment in "Meet Me in St. Louis." The Smith family of St. Louis is moving to New York. No one — other than the obstinate father — wants to go. In a scene that still seems startlingly real and painful, little Tootie (Margaret O'Brien) rushes out into the night and starts smashing her snowmen. "If we're going to New York, I'd rather kill them!" she wails.
When Garland sings that song to her little sister, on their last Christmas Eve at home, it's to comfort her. Not to tell her that everything is all right — because it isn't. But to tell her that someday, perhaps, it will be.
"It really resonated," Fricke said. "How many genuinely no-strings-attached merry little Christmases have any of us had? Always there's somebody who can't be there. Or there's a time when there isn't any money, or health."
Today, it resonates again.
We think of loved ones lost. Of 270,000 American families, this year, that will be missing relatives at their holiday table. We think of family gatherings postponed, future prospects uncertain.
And, yes — we'll have to muddle through, somehow.
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Back in 1944, the song resonated for a different reason. America was in the midst of World War II. "Between Christmas 1943 and Christmas 1944, a lot of families got news that people weren't coming back," Fricke said. "You had to make the best of it, square your shoulders and keep on going."
"White Christmas," another iconic song of the period, also spoke to the yearning of people — soldiers and others — for the kind of traditional Christmas that wasn't possible then. But "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" had a more rueful subtext. "Through the years we all will be together, if the fates allow."
Originally, the song was even grimmer.
Fricke got to know the composer, Hugh Martin, in the 1990s (Martin died in 2011). The song was actually credited to Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane, who wrote as a team — but Martin and Blane were one of those duos, like Lennon and McCartney, who wrote songs separately and were credited jointly. "Ralph is credited on it, but it's entirely Hugh's song," Fricke said.
The lyrics Hugh Martin originally wrote went as follows: "Have yourself a merry little Christmas, it may be your last — Next year we may all be living in the past."
As Martin recounted it to Fricke, years later, Judy Garland wasn't having it.
"She put her foot down and said, 'No, I really like the melody, but if I sing that to Margaret O'Brien, people are going to be streaming out of the theater. It's going to make me sound like a monster, to sing that to this little girl.' "
So Martin, after fretting and fuming a bit, rewrote the lyrics to give them a less downbeat cast.
"It's still a ballad, no question," Fricke said. "But they made it a more hopeful song."
Despite the rough start, "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" became one of Garland's favorites, and one of the songs with which she was most identified. When she had a TV variety series in the early 1960s, she began the Christmas show reprising it — but sung, this time, to her own children. "She was very proud of that song," Fricke said. "She loved having a Christmas song that was associated with her."
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By this time, America was prospering, and World War II was just a memory. Some people felt it was time to paint a smile on Martin's bittersweet lyrics.
Frank Sinatra's version, in 1957, was the first. It was Sinatra, apparently, who asked Martin to soften the sting of several lines. In particular, that one about "muddling through" struck a sour note. "The name of my album is 'A Jolly Christmas,' " Sinatra told him. "Do you think you could jolly up that line for me?" Martin obliged. "Hang a shining star upon the highest bough" is how most people have sung the song ever since.
"And with that change, it became a completely happy Christmas song, as opposed to a consoling Christmas song," Fricke said.
There is a coda to the song's lyrical history. And in this case, it's Fricke himself who is responsible.
A singer, performer and lyricist himself, Fricke had taken in the 1990s to performing a non-secular version of the song for his Lutheran church in Milwaukee: "Have yourself a blessed little Christmas…"
Around the same time, he was getting to know Martin. At some point, he worked up the courage to tell him that he had sanctified one of Martin's most famous lyrics. Martin — a Seventh-Day Adventist — was thrilled.
"I sent him the lyric I had written, and he called me and said, 'Why did I never think of this? This is great. This is wonderful. But I'm going to do my own version and we'll kind of combine them.' "
The new lyrics — "Have yourself a blessed little Christmas, Christ the king is born, Let your voices ring upon this happy morn…" — are now reprinted along with the original words on the printed sheet music. And there's a special credit: "Sacred lyric by Hugh Martin and John Fricke."
"It's something of which I'm very proud," Fricke said.
Jim Beckerman is an entertainment and culture reporter for NorthJersey.com. For unlimited access to his insightful reports about how you spend your leisure time, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.