Beloved Christmas carols: Have yourself a merry little Christmas

Seventy years ago this month, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, drawing the United States into the Second World War. The war years, in turn, provided the background for “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” one of the most melancholy Christmas songs ever written.

The movie that introduced the song, “Meet Me in St. Louis,” the exemplary 1944 MGM period musical, takes place in 1903, when St. Louis was preparing to host the world’s fair. While two songs from that period have prominent places in the movie, composer Ralph Blane and lyricist Hugh Martin produced three songs that became instant hits, including “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”

The story concerns the Smith family, long-time St. Louis residents: Alonzo Smith, a lawyer, his wife, and their five children. As the movie opens in June, the three oldest children pursue their dreams of romance and getting their education. The two younger ones enjoy their own mischief. The entire household eagerly looks forward to the opening of the fair. Everyone, it turns out, except Mr. Smith.

The second vignette takes place around Halloween. The family dynamic continues much as before, with Mr. Smith always being the odd man out. He’s more concerned with his profession than developing relationships within his own family. And so when he comes home from work, he announces that he has accepted a promotion that will require the entire family to move to New York right after Christmas. The announcement devastates all of the children.

So it is a sad Christmas, when all of the children prepare for their last in St. Louis. The youngest child, Tootie, played by Margaret O’Brien, looks out the window at a family of snowmen. When the second-oldest daughter Esther, played by Judy Garland, reminds her that she can’t take the snow family to New York with them, Tootie becomes distraught. That is the point at which Esther sings “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” trying to comfort Tootie:

Have yourself a merry little Christmas
Let your heart be light
Next year all our troubles will be out of sight
Have yourself a merry little Christmas
Make the Yuletide gay
Next year all our troubles will be miles away
Once again, as in olden days, there’ll be golden days of yore
Faithful friends who were dear to us, will be near to us once more
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.

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Margaret O’Brien and Judy Garland in “Meet Me in St. Louis”

It doesn’t work. Tootie immediately runs out to the yard in her nightgown and angrily destroys all of the snow men, declaring that no one else could have them. If they couldn’t go to New York, she’d rather kill them. Mr. Smith, watching from his bedroom window, finally realizes how relocating to New York has put his entire family in disarray. He calls the family together and announces that he has decided to refuse the promotion and stay in St. Louis. So in the final scene, the entire family enjoys the fair, and all the romances have turned out wonderfully.

One reason the movie struck such a deep chord was that, while set in forty years earlier, the looming troubles that hung over most of it had the same emotional character as the country’s mood. In fact, Martin’s original lyrics were not so much melancholy as pessimistic:

Have yourself a merry little Christmas, it may be your last
Next year we may all be living in the past
Have yourself a merry little Christmas, pop that champagne cork,
Next year we will all be living in New York.
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.
But at least we all will be together, if the Fates allow,
From now on we’ll have to muddle through somehow.
So have yourself a merry little Christmas now.

Judy Garland, having spent time entertaining the troops, persuaded Martin that people–and especially military families–needed to nurture hope that everybody would be able to return home. The revised lyrics kept the deep sense of yearning, but balanced it with just enough affirmation.

Nowadays, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” is often sung at a faster tempo than Judy Garland sang it. At that tempo, the original sadness disappears, as the song’s popularity has long outlasted the war conditions under which the country first heard it.

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