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Have Yourself a Merry (and Less Depressing) Little Christmas

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St Louis World's Fair, 1904

Christmas songs come in many forms, from traditional carols to pop songs to raucous ballads only tangentially related to the season. They can make people cheerful or depressed, and each generation of listeners has its favourites. The Second World War was a stressful time for all involved, and many people turned to Christmas music for encouragement and comfort.

People in the United States who remember that war associate several popular songs with those years. 'White Christmas' (Irving Berlin), first sung on the radio shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, evoked powerful longing among overseas troops – but they demanded it, anyway. Bing Crosby sang it at USO1 shows around the world. 'I'll Be Home for Christmas' (Kim Gannon/Walter Kent) arrived in 1943. The last line, 'I'll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams,' expressed a common sentiment. The following year, 1944, brought 'Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas' (Hugh Martin), a song that held out the hope for better Christmases to come. But it almost didn't.

Arguing with the Lyricist

'Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas' premiered as a song sung by actress/singer Judy Garland in the 1944 film Meet Me in St Louis. Musical films were popular during the war years. The subject is an upper-middle-class family who live in St Louis, Missouri, in 1903 and 1904. The action culminates in the opening of the 1904 World's Fair that was held there. The film is full of nostalgia, retro costumes, and new hit tunes. The title of the film comes from a 1904 hit song that was written about the fair and contains the expression 'tootsie-wootsie'. The new musical almost had worse lyrics than that.

In a key scene, the father of the family has decided to move them all to New York City. His daughters are devastated at leaving their friends behind, none more so than the youngest, Tootie, played by Margaret O'Brien. Her older sister, Esther (Judy Garland), tries to comfort her by singing 'Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas', but the child isn't having any. Her anguished response leads to a change of heart by the father and a happy ending for all.

It could have been much worse. The original lyrics the singer was given went like this:

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

Fortunately, Judy Garland put her foot down. As Hugh Martin later told it:

But the original version was so lugubrious that Judy Garland refused to sing it. She said, if I sing that to little Margaret O'Brien they'll think I'm a monster. So I was young then, and kind of arrogant, and I said, well, I'm sorry you don't like it, Judy, but that's the way it is, and I don't really want to write a new lyric. But Tom Drake, who played the boy next door, took me aside and said, Hugh, you've got to finish it.
– interview on 'Fresh Air' by Terry Gross, National Public Radio, 19 November, 2010

Judy Garland wasn't kidding about having to sing that to Margaret O'Brien, the best crier in the child-acting business. If her song had made the child act any sadder, the audience might have become suicidal. Don't believe us? Watch the film clip and judge for yourself.

Reluctantly, the songwriter changed the lyric to the more hopeful version:

Have yourself a merry little Christmas
Let your heart be light
From now on
Your troubles will be out of sight...

This version still doesn't mollify Margaret O'Brien in the movie – she throws a temper tantrum and destroys some snowpeople. But wartime audiences separated from loved ones were comforted by the lines:

Through the years
We all will be together
If the Fates allow
Until then, we'll have to muddle through somehow...

'Muddling through' is what they did a lot of in the 1940s. Later, Frank Sinatra persuaded Martin to change that line again, to 'Hang a shining star upon the highest bough.' That line fit better in his 'Holly Jolly' album theme. In the 21st Century, with its challenges – war, climate change, pandemic – some people might be more inclined to sing once again, 'we'll have to muddle through somehow'2.

1United Service Organizations, a non-profit charitable organisation chartered by Congress to provide entertainment to US military personnel.2Since Sinatra, cover versions of the song have used either wording or, in some cases, both.

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