This song surprised me. I had always thought the music sounded sad, at the very least nostalgic, but the words are tender and encouraging. I had always thought it sounded as though it was sung to someone to cheer them up. Originally it was pretty sad, and know who it was sung to? Not a lover or even a grown-up, but a seven year-old girl who is sad about her family moving from St. Louis to New York right after Christmas. That’s the scene captured in this clip from Meet Me in St. Louis (1944); Judy Garland, playing Esther, sings to her younger sister Tootie, played by Margaret O’Brien.
But the version in the film wasn’t even the original. Arguably the original was Sally Benson’s autobiographical short stories called “5135 Kensington” that were published in the New Yorker and on which the film was based. The original song was written in neither St. Louis or New York but in Birmingham, Alabama by Hugh Martin.
Martin and Garland first met in 1939 at a national screening tour of The Wizard of Oz. After the screening they performed live numbers for the audience. Randomly, I found out the street address where he wrote it. It had been a honeymoon cottage that Martin’s father built for his mother. Very sweet. Now, according to Google Maps street view, it looks like it’s a bunch of apartment buildings next to a Walgreen’s. In poetic parallel, the address of the Bensons’ home in the movie, 5135 Kensington, was also torn down circa 1994.
Anyway, I felt vindicated because the original was sad. In fact, Garland and the film’s director, Vincente Minnelli thought it was so depressing that they asked Martin to change the lyrics. This was not Garland and Minnelli’s only “collaboration,” by the way; during the making of the film, Garland and Minnelli fell in love, and the year after the film came out, 1945, they married. They are the parents of actress and singer Liza Minnelli and, if you’re looking for a life goal, they are that rare family in which mom, dad, and child all won Oscars.
So how did the song transform from depressing to letting your heart be light? Well, not without a fight. It was 1944, and Garland wanted to offer hope to troops. As Mark Steyn put it, “Whether you were shipping out overseas or waiting for someone who’d been gone a long time, the idea of a question mark over next Christmas wasn’t some remote concept.” But Martin refused to change a word. That’s when Tom Drake, who played Garland’s love interest in the film, took Martin for a coffee, called him a son-of-a-five-letter-word, and said he risked losing a big song and screwing up his life if he didn’t write another lyric. There was, apparently, a lot on the line. But with over 70 years of hindsight now, Drake wasn’t wrong. “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” has been recorded by Judy Garland, Bing Crosby, Doris Day, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, James Taylor, the Pretenders, Sarah MacLachlan, Michael Bublé, and reached Billboard’s top 100 just last year in a new cover by Sam Smith. You can see some of the changes to the lyrics below.
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,
Let your heart be light.
From now on our troubles will be out of sight.
Those were some of biggest changes made for the film, but then in 1957 Frank Sinatra asked Martin to make yet another change. Ol’ Blue Eyes called up Martin, said he wanted to include “Merry Little” on his upcoming album, and pointed out that the album’s title was A Jolly Christmas with Frank Sinatra. Sinatra then asked about the song’s line “until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow” saying, “Do you think you could jolly up that line for me?” So Martin changed it to, “Hang a shining star upon the highest bough.” He said, “I was relieved when I came up with ‘bough’ because, if you’re rhyming with ‘now’, there weren’t many options left other than ‘cow’.”
But not even that was the end of the changes. James Taylor returned to the uncertainty of “until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow” for his 2001, post-9/11 recording. Sometimes it’s nice to have a Christmas song that acknowledges not only happy feelings. A final variant: when Martin played the song in church settings, “Through the years we all will be together if the fates allow” became “if the Lord allows” and called the song, “Have Yourself a Blessed Little Christmas.”
This little song surprised me with all the stories surrounding it (and in the interest of space I haven’t included all that I found), happy, sad, scared, angry, tender, and nostalgic. Here’s one more: In the film, just after the clip seen here, the little girl Margaret O’Brien bursts into tears, runs outside, and smashes all her snowmen. But the real story is even more painful: to get that effect Minnelli, the director, had told O’Brien that her dog had been run over, even though it wasn’t true, and then just kept the cameras rolling.
Whatever you’re feeling this season, have yourself a merry little Christmas now.