A recurring favorite of many pop stars’ obligatory collection of Yuletide music, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” has become a holiday hallmark. However, the lyrics popularized with the numerous covers were not what the songwriter originally intended.
The origins of the song we know today come from the 1944 musical film “Meet Me in St. Louis,” where Judy Garland’s character sings it to her young sister as they prepare to move to New York. This version takes a more bittersweet approach; it tries to reassure its listeners that, while life may not seem grand now, they can make it through.
Cut to 1957, and Frank Sinatra is recording his holiday effort, “A Jolly Christmas.” Wanting to include “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” but believing it was too dour to be on an album with “jolly” in the title, Ol’ Blue Eyes does what any normal person would do and contacted the original songwriter, Hugh Martin, to “jolly up that line for [him].”
Martin then changed the song from future to present tense, giving the song more immediate joy as if the holiday magic whisks all the listeners away. “Faithful friends who were dear to us/Will be near to us once more” became “Faithful friends who are dear to us/Gather near to us once more.”
The greatest departure between versions came in the song’s penultimate line. What was once the bleakly perseverant “Until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow” became the celebratory “Hang a shining star upon the highest bough.”
Believe it or not, Frank Sinatra was not the first person to call on Martin to pep up the song. Judy Garland’s rendition in “Meet Me in St. Louis” did not feature the original lyrics.
Instead, the first version of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” is almost laughably dismal, featuring real uplifters like “Have yourself a merry little Christmas/It may be your last” and “Faithful friends who were dear to us/Will be near to us no more.”
Keep in mind, this was intended for Judy Garland to sing to a seven-year-old Margaret O’Brien.
Luckily for little O’Brien and all of us, Martin acquiesced to the demands of Garland, male lead Tom Drake and director Vincente Minelli to make the song a little more cheerful.
Through all of the rewrites and re-recordings, however, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” has endured. It grants a red and green reprieve from our struggles either now or in the future.
This year, our troubles most certainly have not been miles away and may seem closer than ever before. We have to hold onto the hope that like the soldiers of World War II who found solace in Judy Garland’s voice, we will see our loved ones again.
As we prepare to hold our holiday happenings over Zoom and yearn for those happy golden days, remember those who cannot go home and celebrate with their families.
Until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow, so have yourself a merry little Christmas now.