Friday, January 4, 2013

Track 3: Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas

Well, I had planned to write a post about a different Christmas song every day leading up to J.C.'s birthday, but as is holiday tradition, I did not get jack shee-aht done while on Christmas vacation, with the exception of laying in the hot tub at my parents' apartment complex while watching video of my 11-year-old sister's dance class do "Gangnam Style" and drinking Bailey's.


A holiday well spent.

Although the holidays are over now, I still want to write about one of my Yuletide favorites, "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas."

Like every other Christmas song, there's about a billion versions of this one floatin' around. This year, I heard Chrissie Hynde sing it at least 17 times. While her version's not terrible, I absolutely cannot hear her voice without thinking of her mid-'90s performance of the national anthem at a World Series game, which was one of several such performances that were played in rotation on our TVs each morning in middle school. I just remember praying each morning that they'd play the one with Hanson singing, which was always an omen of a good day to come. Hynde's chronically flat, clearly drunk rendition was the opposite.

But I'm not here to insult rock and roll legend Chrissie Hynde of the iconic band, The Pretenders. She is probably an awesome dude.

I am here to insult all versions of the song "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," besides the one and only true version, which was performed by Judy Garland in the 1944 MGM musical, Meet Me in St. Louis. For those who haven't seen the film, it's a predictably cheery one about Judy Garland and her older, hotter sister finding love in early 20th-century St. Louis. In the background, their two little sisters create hijinks, their mom sighs exasperatedly, their granddad mumbles about the old days, their mouthy cook is mouthy and their dad is kind of an asshole. And also, the St. Louis World's Fair is about to happen. And everybody's totally stoked.


Asshole dad comes home from work to tell everybody he's got a promotion at work, and they're all moving to New York after Christmas. And they all better just suck it up.

Well, needless to say, Judy Garland is not happy, because she's just spent at least the first 45 minutes of the movie seducing the boy next door, and now they're about to skip town. But she tries to keep it together, and after coming home from the Christmas dance (which she attended with her GRANDPA), she goes upstairs to find her youngest sister crying about leaving home and worried that Santa Claus won't be able to find her next year in New York. Judy, who just had to break up with her boyfriend outside the Christmas dance because of the move, tries to cheer both her sister and herself up with a song.

 The first time I saw Meet Me in St. Louis, it was June 10. I know this because it was Judy Garland's birthday, and Turner Classic Movies was playing a day-long marathon of her films. I was sick that day, so I sat on the couch and watched Babes on Broadway, Babes in Arms, Strike Up the Band, Easter Parade, The Harvey Girls, Summer Stock and, of course, Meet Me in St. Louis. I was about 15 years old, and that day I became a lifelong lover of the MGM musical.

I also became a lifelong lover of this version of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," for three reasons. The first is that Judy Garland sounds objectively better than Chrissie Hynde on this track (sorry, girl, it ain't personal). The second and third, which are pretty closely related, are that it provided a context for the song, and that its lyrics, though only marginally different, are superior to the ones performed by most artists today.

The song spends most of its time repeating is titular phrase and discussing the various joys of the holiday season, like seeing old friends and being merry and bright and all that other Christmas crap. In the current popular version, the final verse goes like this:

Someday soon, we all will be together
If the fates allow
Hang a shining star upon the highest bough!
And have yourself a merry little Christmas now.

According to the Wikipedia article for the song, we have Frank Sinatra to thank for this version, who asked Hugh Martin, a co-writer of the song, to "jolly [it] up" for him. 

Before its jollification, the verse was originally:

Someday soon, we all will be together
If the fates allow
Until then, we'll have to muddle through somehow.
So have yourself a merry little Christmas now.

This one little line changes the entire meaning of the song, especially in terms of the film's context. It becomes, not a jolly song about a jolly day, but a sad song whose singer's life is about to dramatically change, and who is trying to convince herself that things are going to be alright. In this day and age, moving several thousand miles is still a drag, but it's not quite the issue it was then: it probably meant they weren't ever coming back again. Suddenly, "Next year all our troubles will be out of sight...Next year all our troubles will be miles away" sound like what they really are: somebody trying to soothe her little sister's fears and worries, urging her to be happy while she can, even though she's not quite convinced by her own words. In the end, she breaks down a little, and sings that wonderful line, "...we'll have to muddle through somehow," admitting that things are maybe not so great now, and maybe it's going to take some time before they're back to those idyllic "golden days of yore."

Which is why I think it's still appropriate to write about the song today, even though Christmas is over; especially because Christmas is over. I spent a week seeing my family and friends in Florida, some whom I haven't seen in years, and came home to spend more time with Anthony's family, most of whom live far away. Now everybody's back where they came from, and it's all business as usual again. Another year before next Christmas.

Until then, we've got some muddling to do.


  1. You know, Garland's rendition of this song has always made me a little misty but I'd never actually seen the musical. I just loved the same version of that line and how truthful it felt. I love watching her perform it. So glad you posted this!

    1. i know, right? love that hairdo in the scene, too, though if you ever do watch the movie, you will see some truly outrageous dresses up in there. it's worth it, though. definitely one of the best cures for a sick day.