This looks to be a different kind of Christmas. Many will carry on as before, but some will choose a socially distanced Yule. Some will be forced to keep away from family or friends who have fallen ill, and others will spend their first Christmas since losing a loved one. Even the usual heart-tugging holiday ads on TV have caught on, some of them depicting a Christmas morning video call instead of a Christmas Eve embrace.
Traveling recently with one of those 24/7 Christmas-song stations on the radio, I realized we already have the anthem for such a season.
“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” gets right at the mood of the moment. Not the version we hear most often, with its shining star hung upon the highest bough, but the original lyrics sung so hauntingly by Judy Garland.
“Have yourself a merry little Christmas, let your heart be light/Next year all our troubles will be out of sight,” she sings – just as many of us have, only half-jokingly, said about getting beyond 2020. “Next year all our troubles will be miles away.”
“Faithful friends who are dear to us” might not “gather near to us” this year, as in the more common version. Instead we must look ahead: They “will be near to us once more/Someday soon … if the fates allow.”
In the song’s most poignant yet bittersweet line, Garland steels us for a melancholy present day: “Until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow.”
Listening to this song for the hundredth time, but with recalibrated ears, I not only marveled at how well it fits today. I also wondered: Why was a song like this written in the first place? What was happening in our world then?
The year was 1943, but the inspiration for songwriter Hugh Martin wasn’t the war. As some readers might already know, it was a scene in the hit musical “Meet Me in St. Louis,” in which Garland’s Esther Smith and her little sister Tootie (played by Margaret O’Brien) are crestfallen about an impending move to New York City.
Amazingly, the original, never-recorded lyrics Martin wrote were still more depressing:
“Have yourself a merry little Christmas,” the song was to open, “It may be your last/Next year we may all be living in the past.” And, later:
“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.”
Talk about a Donner downer.
”They said, ‘It’s so dreadfully sad,’” a 92-year-old Martin recalled in an interview with Entertainment Weekly in 2007. “I said, ‘I thought the girls were supposed to be sad in that scene.’ They said, ‘Well, not that sad.’ And Judy was saying, ‘If I sing that to that sweet little Margaret O’Brien, they’ll think I’m a monster!’ And she was quite right, but it took me a long time to get over my pride.”
Garland’s rendition, then, was the relatively upbeat version. That lasted until 1957, Martin said, when Frank Sinatra asked him to “jolly up” the lyrics so it would fit on his new recording – the eventual platinum album, “A Jolly Christmas from Frank Sinatra.”
”It’s been a little confusing,” Martin said in that 2007 interview, ”because half the people sing one line and half sing the other.” For his own part, he prefers the “muddle through somehow” version: ”It’s just so kind of … down-to-earth.”
That it is. And down-to-earth at Christmastime is fitting more than just this year. For those of us who celebrate more than Santa Claus and eggnog this week, it’s a good reminder that we celebrate the Lord humbling Himself and coming down to earth as a baby, dwelling here as God with us, Emmanuel.
May the brightness of this season, memories of its past and hopes for its future, be with each of you. And have yourself a merry little Christmas now.