Have Yourself a Merry Little 2017
By BRUCE HANDYDEC. 24, 2016
PHOTO: Judy Garland singing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” in the movie “Meet Me in St. Louis.”
True, it’s not by Beyoncé or Adele or Rihanna. It’s not even by anyone still alive. But I would like to nominate “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” as song of the year, because if any single tune reflects the miseries of 2016, and the anxious uncertainty with which we greet 2017, it is this 72-year-old holiday chestnut.
The song was introduced by Judy Garland in the 1944 film “Meet Me in St. Louis,” a picture that was itself looking further backward, to the turn of the last century. If this sounds like a Russian nesting doll approach to nostalgia, well, that’s only one facet of the song’s 2016-ness.
Like you, I’ve probably heard “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” dozens of times since Thanksgiving, and hundreds if not thousands of times more across previous holiday seasons. (Mileage will vary depending on how much time you log at Starbucks and CVS.) With its pretty, winding, bittersweet melody, which its co-author likened to a madrigal, and its lyrics about making the best of a rocky present with hopes for a better future, this unusually ambiguous Christmas song falls on the melancholy side of the moody-merry Yuletide music divide (the so-called Guaraldi Line).
To my taste, that is the side to be on, but until last weekend, I hadn’t paid much more attention to “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” than I had to “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” or the odious “Frosty the Snowman.” The occasion was one of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra’s annual Big Band Holidays concerts, where I found tears running down my cheeks during an especially plaintive version of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” sung by Catherine Russell and arranged by the tenor saxophonist Victor Goines. Introducing the song, Ms. Russell mentioned that she was going to use its seldom-sung original lyrics, and indeed they proved not only unfamiliar but also — surprising in this generally jolly context — provocative.
The most common version of the song begins:
Have yourself a merry little Christmas
Let your heart be light
Next year all our troubles will be out of sight
Instead, [this week in NYC] Ms. Russell sang:
Have yourself a merry little Christmas
It may be your last
Next year we may all be living in the past
That’s not just melancholy or bittersweet; that’s bleak, more “A Raymond Carver Christmas” than “A Charlie Brown Christmas.”
In “Meet Me in St. Louis,” Garland’s character, Esther Smith, sings “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” to her youngest sister, Tootie, played by then 6-year-old Margaret O’Brien. (Garland, 21, was cast as a teenager and not happy about it.) The two are part of a bustling family of four young girls and one older brother growing up in St. Louis in 1903, when the city was gearing up for the World’s Fair it would host the following year. The thin, episodic plot hinges on a promotion the family’s father has received, which will require a move to New York City.
Some readers might think that a good thing, but the Smith sisters are crushed, understandably sorrowful that their lives will be uprooted, their friendships sundered, their rituals erased. Late on Christmas Eve — presumably the family’s last in its warm, sprawling, lovingly art-directed-for-Technicolor home — Esther finds Tootie still awake, worried that Santa Claus won’t be able to find the family chimney next year in New York. Esther has her own fear: that the move, just days away, will end her budding romance with the pipe-smoking, basketball-playing college boy next door. So she launches into “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” as a balm for both her sister and herself, Garland giving the song all the magnificent ache and vulnerability she had brought to “Over the Rainbow” five years earlier.
The lyrics Catherine Russell sang at Jazz at Lincoln Center were the ones the songwriter Hugh Martin first tried to sell to MGM producers Arthur Freed and Roger Edens, who laughed when he played it for them, telling Martin, according to his autobiography, that he was “on the track of something good” but that the song “shouldn’t be a dirge.”
Martin didn’t want to compromise (he claimed he wrote the song himself, though it is officially credited to him and his partner, Ralph Blane), but Garland’s critique was even harsher than the producers’: “If I sing that lyric to little Margaret O’Brien, the audience will think I’m a monster.”
Her response may have been testy because she hadn’t wanted to make the movie in the first place, or because she was concerned O’Brien would steal the picture, or because she didn’t trust the director, Vincente Minnelli (whom she would later marry), or simply because she was Judy Garland, but she wasn’t wrong, and thus were born the more familiar lyrics, though in the movie they don’t much soothe poor Tootie: The Christmas Eve scene ends with O’Brien running into the moonlit yard and, in a fit of rage and despair, smashing the family of snow people she had built that morning — which might sound a little much, but O’Brien’s traumatized sobbing sells it. (Before scenes in which the child star had to cry, her mother would tell her her dog was being put down.)
So you can imagine how both Tootie and the audience might have reacted if the “it may be your last” lyric had stayed in the picture. Aside from turning filmgoers against Garland, it might also have traumatized them, given that “Meet Me in St. Louis” premiered in late November 1944, when the wars in Europe and the Pacific, though nearing their endgames, were far from over; the brutal German counteroffensive known as the Battle of the Bulge would begin just a few weeks later. Amid loss, separation and uncertainty, lyrics from Martin’s softened rewrite such as “Someday soon we all will be together / If the fates allow” were poignant enough.
“Not quite all, we know that,” the critic David Thomson has written of what he calls “the saddest Christmas song there ever was.” When Garland performed it at the Hollywood Canteen not long after the movie’s release for an audience of soldiers and sailors who were soon to ship out, she brought the house to tears, or so legend has it.
The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra has used the original lyrics before, including on the 2015 album “Big Band Holidays,” so it’s not as if someone fished them out of the trunk 72 years later to make a tart postelection point. I’m also well aware that our current challenges pale in comparison to fighting a world war with civilization in the balance. Let’s say we are somewhere on a continuum between that and facing a move from St. Louis to New York. Still, I have to confess the “it may be your last” line captured my near-apocalyptic mood — and maybe yours as well.
But the lyric that moved me to tears is the line that follows “If the fates allow” (and remained in Martin’s final lyrics):
Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow.
How prosaic, even homely as pre-rock era songwriting goes, and yet how perfect. Muddling through, somehow, may not sound particularly inspirational, but perseverance is often the best option at hand, when just moving forward, one inch or foot or yard at a time, can be a kind of heroism. At least that’s how it struck me listening to Ms. Russell, her deeply felt performance offering a subdued and cleareyed but still genuine optimism.
Is that a lot to hang on a single line from a Christmas song? Maybe. Frank Sinatra, feeling the lyric was too grim, asked Martin rewrite it when he recorded the song for his 1957 LP “A Jolly Christmas from Frank Sinatra.” Martin came up with “Hang a shining star upon the highest bough,” a line that many other performers have used since. (Josh Groban bellows it on his lugubrious new recording of the song, which just hit #1 on Billboard’s Adult Contemporary chart.) I prefer the older version, but there’s an implicit defiance in the Sinatra variant, a kind of valiant optimism — or maybe it’s go-down-swinging panache — which also suits blue-state moods this December.
In “Meet Me in St. Louis,” “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” is the catalyst for a happy ending: Tootie’s backyard rampage prompts her father to change his mind about the move, and we cut to a dazzling climax at the 1904 World’s Fair, electric lights and handsome beaus suggesting a fine future for all. Happy endings seem a little more remote in 2016 — miles away, as they say, or at least as distant as the next election. In the meantime, we muddle through. It’s a start.
Bruce Handy is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair and the author of the forthcoming book “Wild Things: The Unchildish Pleasures of Reading Great Children’s Books.”