Since its debut in Vincente Minnelli's stunning 1944 musical Meet Me in St. Louis, "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" has been covered and copied hundreds of times. It's become a go-to for singers in search of homely tenderness, a mainstay on supermarket Christmas CDs. It remains one of the top-20 most-played songs in America over the holiday period. But unlike almost everything else in rotation on FM pop radio through December, "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" is, deep down, crushingly sad. It's so melancholic that some artists have been trying to rob the song of its emotional core for three quarters of a century.
To understand its journey, you really have to begin with Judy Garland's original from Meet Me in St. Louis:
You'll notice here that the song has brought a young girl to tears. That's "Tootie" Smith (Margaret O'Brien) trying to come to terms with her family's impending move to New York, away from the family home in St. Louis. Her elder sister Esther (Garland) is desperately in love with the boy next door, and obviously doesn't want to leave either, but their father has business interests on the East Coast and that's seemingly all there is to it. Life and love must come second.
The lyrics seem hopeful at first, but they don't do a great job of consoling Tootie. Though the first three verses drift through a quiet optimism, the song ends with Garland hinting at the emotional disaster that she's facing, letting the mask slip for a second: "Someday soon we all will be together / If the fates allow / Until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow." This might be why Tootie runs from the house as soon as the song is over and, fighting through tears, reduces those snowmen to icy mush.
It could have been so much sadder as well. The song is credited to Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane, though after Blane's death in 1995, Martin insisted that he wrote the song by himself. His first version was, he told NPR's Terry Gross in 2010, just too sad for Garland: "The original version was so lugubrious that Judy Garland refused to sing it. She said, 'If I sing that to little Margaret O'Brien, they'll think I'm a monster.'" Martin said that he initially refused to budge and insisted that Garland sing the song his way. It took an intervention from Tom Drake (who played John Truett, the boy next door) to convince Martin to rewrite the truly depressing sections.
And they really were depressing. Chris Willman of Entertainment Weekly interviewed Martin about the song in 2007 and posted the original lyrics at the end of his piece. It's easy to see why Garland might have been wary of singing them to a seven-year-old kid. Instead of a song about persevering through misery cobbling things together in the midst of chaos, Garland would have ended up telling a little girl to abandon all hope. In the first verse, she'd have sung: "Have yourself a merry little Christmas / It may be your last / Next year we may all be living in the past." Her line about the magic of Christmas past would have been completely inverted: "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." The way that Martin had it originally, the line about having to "muddle through" would have been the sweet chaser to a bitter pill.
But even the cleaned-up version that Garland ended up singing was too downcast for Frank Sinatra, who wanted to cover the song for his 1957 Christmas LP. According to Willman, Sinatra called Martin before recording the LP and asked for the "muddle through" lyric to be altered: "The name of my album is A Jolly Christmas. Do you think you could jolly up that line for me?” Martin, then less stubborn than he was in the mid 40s, happily agreed, removing the song's gut-wrenching conclusion and replacing it with something anodyne: "So hang a shining star upon the highest bough." With that, "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" became the analgesic song that you can hear from one crooner or another in any department store today.
It's a shame that, in our collective desperation to treat Christmas as a Coca-Cola commercial, we've ended up with a pale imitation of a beautiful and emotionally nuanced song. Martin's original might have been too bleak for a blockbuster, but the lyrics that Garland had for her final verse in Meet Me in St. Louis hinted at the real anxiety and trepidation of midwinter, that sense of trying to hold things together in spite of everything. There's no good artistic reason to censor that. And it's not just hyper-commercial remakes that pull the line. Even the covers that I've grown to love, like Cat Power's whisper-quiet version from 2013, go with the Sinatrafied stand-in lyrics.
I'm not sure that anyone can ever fully reduce "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" to emotional neutrality. Martin's melody is too blue and too beautiful, the sudden reach into a minor key too mournful, to be broken by some disposable lyric. As long as the chords remain the same and Garland's version is still around for reference, it'll still be sad and complex. The ghost of that line will always be there. It'll still be a song about muddling through, somehow.
Alex Robert Ross will be on Twitter, if the fates allow.