A friend of mine recently called my attention to the Nora Sagal version of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” featured in the movie Monument Men. It’s a beautiful version, and her husky voice suits the slow acapella arrangement.
However, the definitive for me will always be Judy Garland’s original from Meet Me in St. Louis, a film that was an integral part of my childhood. We taped it off a TV airing, and I watched that hand-labelled VHS countless times. I was completely taken by Judy Garland, as the viewer’s supposed to be, and thought she was unspeakably beautiful in the film, with her long auburn hair and enormous eyes.
In the movie, the song appears close to the end: the eleven o’clock number. Tootie, played by Margaret O’Brien (another one of my favorites, but for her later work in Little Women), is the mischievous youngest child, her antics ranging from faking injury to “flouring” a neighbor and telling the neighbor kids that she killed him. But in this scene, she’s playing a music box, reflecting and lamenting that soon the family will be leaving St. Louis. Her older sister Esther (Judy Garland) finds her alone in the dark, and plays the music box with her, as the song begins.
This version, serving the context of the story, is a melancholy one. She talks about their current troubles, and how they’ll be gone in the future, if not now, “Next year on our troubles will be out of sight.” She talks about friends who are no longer close by, but remain in our hearts. She sings how our loved ones will be with us “someday soon,” but that “until then/we’ll have to muddle through somehow.” However, it’s Christmas, so remember that there’s still joy in the world, and “have yourself a merry little Christmas now.” Now. It’s an ode to the present, (not presents!) saying that while the challenges of the world and our lives haven’t disappeared just because it’s Christmas, remember that it is Christmas, which is in itself a time to celebrate joy and light.
Later versions of the song eliminate these nuances. Frank Sinatra wanted the lyricist to make the song more “jolly.” Instead of next year, our troubles have been eradicated right now, on Christmas, “from now on/our troubles will be out of sight.” Our friends who were no longer close by will now “gather near to us/once more.” And instead of muddling through, we “hang a shining star/upon the highest bough.” Christmas, here, is the turning point – instead of reminding the listener to put aside their troubles because right now is Christmas, Christmas itself is the element that transforms the listener’s pain and sorrow into something light.
I do love Frank Sinatra’s version too – how can you not, with that strong resonant baritone? I also like that there’s a version that portrays the magical element of Christmas, how participating in Christmas with our loved ones can help the weight of everyday life fall away. Judy’s rendition was published in 1943, in the midst of World War II, and became a favorite of soldiers at the time. Frank’s was recorded circa 1957, post-war, in a radically different political and social climate. For me, the less transformative, but living in the present version, tugs at me. It’s a lesson that can be carried year-round.