Most Judy Garland fans know at least one song in her catalog that will reduce them to a blubbering mess. For me, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” is not a Christmas song, it’s a Christmas experience, and my holiday season does not officially begin until I’ve cried over it at least once.
The song was written by Ralph Blane and Hugh Martin for Garland’s 1944 M-G-M musical Meet Me in St. Louis, and it’s probably the song version of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol in terms of the number of times and ways it’s been re-done. If you’re familiar with the tune, you’ll know that there are two versions of it. The more optimistic version has the lines “From now on, our troubles will be out of sight” and “Through the years, we all will be together.”
But for me, the only version that counts — and even that one doesn’t count unless it’s sung by Garland — goes, “Next year, all our troubles will be out of sight” and “Some day soon, we all will be together.” Why does this version count?
The song’s premise, for one. In the movie, Esther (Garland) is singing the song to comfort her little sister Tootie (Margaret O’Brien), who is upset that their family will soon be uprooting to New York. Listening to Garland sing the song, you quickly realize that (a) Esther is singing the song to uplift herself as much as her sister, and (b) she doesn’t believe a single word of it.
Even the song’s orchestration is bittersweet. The first four bars have typical twinkling imagery in the background, but the song’s string section subtly leads us, one step after the other, into a bitter descent that paves the way for Garland’s tearful voice.
And this is as it should be. People often pooh-pooh the holiday naysayers and want to remember only the happy times and joyous reunions, and there’s certainly a place for that.
But for me, the song evokes all those Christmases before I was lucky enough to have a wife and family of my own — those times when I looked at happy couples and twinkling lights and wondered why I felt so alone. It’s a hell from which I’m selfishly happy to have escaped, knowing that the same scene still plays out annually for others.
By all means, don’t deny yourself the joy that the holiday season brings. But when all the Christmas chores are done, sit down, look at the starry sky, and listen to Judy Garland sing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” with everything that’s in her.
And remember that the greatest Being who ever walked on this earth, whose birth we are celebrating, was born in a stable, surrounded by cattle. And if you pray, preface the greeting “God, our Heavenly Father,” with “There, but for the grace of…”