There’s no question: “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” is the perfect song for this bizarre holiday season.
“But wait,” I can hear you say. “What does that syrupy tune about shining stars above the highest bough have to do with Coronavirus Christmas?”
The answer is: nothing. Because if the song you’re hearing has that line, it’s not the version I’m talking about. To hear the original (and in my opinion, better) version, one has to jump back in time to the November 1944 release of the smash musical film “Meet Me In St. Louis” starring Judy Garland.
“Merry Little Christmas,” which was composed by the songwriting duo Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane, appears near the end. With a melody Martin called “madrigal-like,” Garland’s teenage character tries to comfort her little sister at Christmastime, while also bracing to leave behind the boy she loves. She’s consoling herself as much as anyone else: “Someday soon we all will be together, if the Fates allow,” she sings in the final verse. “Until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow.”
If it worked perfectly within the film’s context, it was even better on its own. “Meet Me In St. Louis” opened just before the three-year anniversary of the US entry into World War II, and troops and their families were steeling themselves for yet another holiday apart. “Merry Little Christmas’' struck a chord with the public, capturing the melancholy and uncertainty of a wartime Yuletide while steadfastly hoping for happy times ahead.
Even without the wartime aspect, Garland’s version hits on a persistent truth — that being sad around the holidays can be profoundly difficult, especially if one is bombarded with quasi-enforced cheer. Unlike many popular Christmas songs, it speaks directly to the lonely and downcast. It encourages listeners to make the best of a bad situation, to have themselves a merry little Christmas anyway.
But then along came the “highest bough” lyric just over a decade later, as Frank Sinatra prepared to record a Christmas LP. Sinatra had recorded the song in the past, but as he saw it, the lyrics were too gloomy for the mood he wanted on “A Jolly Christmas” (released in 1957). So he asked Martin: Could he “jolly up” those words a bit?
Martin readily obliged. No longer did the singer have to wait for “next year” for their troubles to be out of sight; with the change to “from now on,” those troubles were a thing of the past. There’s no need to look forward to better days; the better days are already here. There’s nothing left to “muddle through somehow.” Martin needed a rhyme, so “highest bough” it is.
The 1944 lyrics didn’t totally disappear (Ella Fitzgerald and Phoebe Bridgers are among those who recorded them) but the cheerful revision is more commonly performed. It’s not at all surprising. Sinatra’s “jolly” version channels crowded living rooms full of laughter, platters of cookies, candles in the window, and lights on the tree: an idealized vision of Christmas so many work their tails off to create, even if the holidays cause just as much stress as good cheer. Many still try for that picture-perfect Christmas year after year — but not this year, if you follow public health guidelines and/or common sense. A “merry little Christmas” — emphasis on the “little” — is probably the only Christmas you should have yourself in 2020.
So consider Garland’s version: There’s not a single word that couldn’t be about this Christmas. Next year all our troubles won’t be entirely out of sight, but with the rapid development of COVID-19 vaccines, it’s increasingly likely these particular troubles will be. We’ll be with our loved ones and friends “once again, as in olden days” — as in, the days before March 2020. With any luck, it’ll be soon. But in the meantime, we’ll all have to muddle through. Somehow.