Has there ever been a more ironically-titled Christmas song than Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas? So saccharine is the promise of the phrase “merry little Christmas,” and so jolly the majority of the song’s recordings, that it was not until I was an adult that it finally hit me how achingly sad its message truly is.
The artist that helped me come to this realization was the incomparable Chrissie Hynde, and so hers seems as good a listen to start with as any:
The song was penned for Judy Garland by MGM contract-composer Hugh Martin and singer Ralph Blane for the 1944 movie Meet Me in St. Louis. In the movie, Garland sings the song to her young sister at a time when it looks like they are about to be forced from their family home and shuffled off to New York. The number’s overarching message is that life is full of disappointment, but maybe someday it won’t be. (But, really, it probably will.) It is not a “merry” song at all.
And that’s the pepped up version of the song. Garland refused to sing Martin’s first version, the lyrics of which ominously included,
Have yourself a merry little Christmas,
It may be your last…
No good times like the olden days
Happy golden days of yore;
Faithful friends who were dear to us
Will be near to us no more.
Because of the melancholy nature of the song, MGM was concerned that Meet Me In St. Louis lacked a holiday song with which viewers could connect. They therefore made the milquetoast decision to wedge Irving Berlin’s White Christmas into the script and make it the movie’s showcase tune, despite the fact that they had just used White Christmas as the showcase tune in two other recent movie releases.
As it turned out, however, Garland’s recording did have an audience with whom it resonated: the overseas troops fighting the final battles of World War II. The men stationed in Europe and the South Pacific, thousands of miles from home and unsure if they would ever return, heard something of themselves in the moroseness of Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas. It became an enormous hit with Armed Forces radio, and in some areas the song was played over and over for hours on end at the troops’ request. After the war, Garland would be asked to sing the song at concerts where there were large numbers of veterans in attendance, regardless of the season. By all reports, whenever she obliged it would make many of those who have been overseas weep uncontrollably in their seats.
Shortly after the Garland recording became a hit, Hugh Martin publically vowed to never “pep up” his lyrics again. It was a promise he would break a decade later with the very same song, however, this time at the request of Frank Sinatra.
Sinatra was recording Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas for his upcoming A Jolly Christmas With Frank Sinatra album, when he contacted Martin. As Martin recalled later,
Sinatra told me, “I don’t care for the line ‘untl then we’ll have to muddle through somehow.’ The name of my album is A Jolly Christmas. Do you think you could jolly up that line for me?”
Martin agreed to change the penultimate line from “untl then we’ll have to muddle through somehow“ to “hang a shining star upon the highest bough.” (The results were somewhat disappointing.) Different artist since have used each line, and some use both — one before an instrumental refrain and the other after.
There are a lot of recordings that do a good job of capturing the spirit of melancholy longing in Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas. Cat Power’s is quite good, I think:
And for those that want a truly merry rendition, you can’t go wrong with Ella:
Or, for that matter, with Bob Schneider: