Lonelier and quieter winter holidays await us in the midst of the pandemic. These holidays so rich in family traditions and gatherings are now imperiled or postponed by the demands of social distancing. Most of us will reach out by phone or FaceTime or Zoom to family and friends we would normally have seen in person. We will wish them well and look forward to next year’s holidays when we hope to get together in person.
With that sentiment, my favorite Christmas song — Hugh Martin and Ralph Blaine’s “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” — will be especially poignant and appropriate this year.
The song is a secular Christmas classic, famous for the Judy Garland original and Frank Sinatra cover, but also recorded by crooners like Bing Crosby and Andy Williams; jazz singers like Mel Torme, Tony Bennett, and Ella Fitzgerald; pop singers like Doris Day, Barbra Streisand, Linda Ronstadt, Rod Stewart and Whitney Houston; jazz instrumentalists like Oscar Peterson, Dexter Gordon and Chris Botti; and a whole range of singers from Carrie Underwood to Shaggy, from John Legend to Kelly Clarkson, and from Mary J. Blige to the Muppets and John Denver.
The song has a fascinating history, including two (successful) attempts to change the words to make it “merrier,” yet it remains a song about Christmas loneliness, looking forward to future holidays that may, perhaps, be brighter.
To begin at the beginning, watch the original performance, Judy Garland in “Meet Me in St. Louis” (1944). It is one of the finest performances Garland put on film, and that is saying a lot: no one sells a song dramatically as well as Judy Garland.
Judy, playing Esther, goes to comfort her younger sister, Tootie (Margaret O’Brien). They are both sad this Christmas, as their father has decided to move their family from St. Louis to New York City, and Tootie doesn’t want to leave her friends or her “snow people,” while Esther has been falling in love with the boy next door. Judy’s attempt to cheer her younger sister causes Tootie to cry and then run out into the yard and destroy her snow sculptures in a fury.
Though the lyrics seem somewhat upbeat, they repeatedly tell us that to be happy for the holidays, we must push our troubles away: “From now on/Our troubles will be miles away”; “From now on/Our troubles will be out of sight.” There’s a strangely adult awareness that being merry and gay requires ignoring the things that dismay us. When the song looks to the future, the lyrics suggest that we will be together only “if the fates allow” and that until that future reunion “we have to muddle through somehow.”
Whew. That’s life, all right, but we aren’t always reminded of that so starkly in a “Merry Christmas” song.
But we only have these lyrics because Judy Garland refused to sing the ones she was given because they were so much more depressing. Stunningly, the original lyrics read: “Have yourself a merry little Christmas/ It may be your last/ Next year we may all be living in the past.” Later: “Faithful friends who were dear to us/ Will be near to us no more.”
What could have inspired a holiday song about merriment that suggests this could be our last Christmas or, perhaps, if we survive, it will only be to miss the friends who are no longer with us?
The answer lies in the parentheses, the year of composition: 1944. Though Judy Garland’s “Meet Me in St. Louis” is set in 1903-04, the audiences who wept through this song knew and were living the context the songwriters were evoking: Christmas during World War 2, with families separated, and millions dead and missed. Books and movies reflect the time of their creation more than the time of their setting. Thus we know that Shakespeare’s Macbeth draws more from his contemporary Scottish king, King James, and James’s rule and preoccupations in the early 1600s, than it does from the eleventh century when a Scottish king named Macbeth lived.
The home front sentiments of the Second World War have some parallels with the global crisis of today and our “war” against the pandemic. This Christmas, more than 300,000 Americans who have died of COVID since February will be missing from holiday celebrations. Many more will spend the holidays alone or in small nuclear family groups to protect against the spread of the virus. We will think ahead to next year’s holiday gatherings and, of course, we will think of those we have lost. “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” captures the bittersweet ambivalence of a time dedicated to celebration when it is weighted by sadness, separation and loss.
It is not a wholly grim picture, as we “all will be together” in the better times to come. Knowing that our ancestors in previous wars, pandemics and cataclysms found resilience, we, too, “will have to muddle through somehow.” That’s the line, by the way, that Sinatra insisted on changing. It became “Hang a shining star/ Upon the highest bough.” But I think the “muddling through” is more to the point.
My best wishes to all for the holidays and the promise of a New Year. Difficult as this winter may be, there are brighter times ahead, and we will care a little more for those human connections we have had to put on hold.