Few people give much thought to how Christmas songs originate. Unless you’re a senior citizen, virtually all of the tunes that pervade the airwaves at this time of year predate your birth—they’ve just always been around, as if they’d been composed by Santa Claus himself. (Maybe not the one with him kissing Mommy.) As it turns out, though, most of them were written and originally became popular around the same time: between 1940 and 1960. The ’40s, in particular, were an incredibly fertile period for Yuletide tunesmiths, giving us “The Christmas Song” (a.k.a. “Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire”), “The Little Drummer Boy,” “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” “Here Comes Santa Claus,” “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer,” etc. People alive at that time could head out to the movies expecting to be introduced to a future standard, perhaps casually sung—as a sort of wistful lullaby, no less—by one of Hollywood’s biggest stars.
That’s precisely what happened with “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas,” ranked among the two or three most frequently played Christmas songs year after year. Written by the relatively unsung team of Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane (though Martin later claimed to have done all the work himself), it was expressly composed for Vincente Minnelli’s 1944 musical Meet Me In St. Louis, about a turn-of-the-century family shaken up when the father gets a new job that will require leaving their comfortable suburban life in St. Louis for the hustle and bustle of New York. Nobody wants to move—especially not Esther (Judy Garland), who’s just fallen in love with (literally) the boy next door. Toward the end of the film, when things seem most bleak, Esther sings “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” to her much younger sister, Tootie (Margaret O’Brien), in one of the loveliest scenes the movies have ever produced.
Sorry, did I say “loveliest”? I meant “most depressing.” In its original context, this song is an incredible downer—Esther’s not entirely sincere effort to convince both herself and Tootie that everything’s going to be all right… eventually. “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” became a classic mostly because Frank Sinatra insisted on having Martin rewrite the lyrics when he recorded it 13 years later, in 1957, for an album called A Jolly Christmas. Two references to “next year” were changed to “from now on,” removing the specter of 12 long months during which our troubles will remain very much in sight. Even more significantly, the bummer line “Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow” became today’s familiar “Hang a shining star upon the highest bough.” Incredibly, Martin’s original draft was even grimmer, with a verse that began “Have yourself a merry little Christmas / it may be your last.” That was too much even for Minnelli and Garland (who became romantically involved during the production), and got axed.
Nonetheless, it’s always startling to see just how somber the song is as originally performed. Garland’s expression throughout is anything but hopeful—she looks as if she’s struggling to hide how despondent she feels, and doing a poor job of it. And little Tootie is flat-out traumatized. She appears a bit melancholy in the two-shot, but when Minnelli cuts to a close-up, there’s a tear leaking from her right eye, and it seems that any qualified child psychiatrist who saw the fixed, hopeless expression on her face would instantly call protective services. And does the song make her feel any better? Apparently not, because her reaction is to run outside and start decapitating the backyard snow family with what may be an actual rifle. (The film is set in 1904, so it’s at least somewhat plausible that people might place an unloaded gun in the arms of a snowman and not worry about it being stolen.) Even the cute little dog gets his head bashed in. So much for music’s charms to soothe the savage breast. Have yourself a merry little killing spree!
Give Esther credit for trying, though. She does, after all, have Garland’s voice, which can make anything sound heartbreakingly beautiful. Minnelli, presumably in the process of falling in love (they got married the following year), places so much confidence in Garland that he shoots the entire song in just four shots: an initial two-shot, a close-up of Esther, a close-up of Tootie, and a return to the two-shot. That’s it. Neither actress ever moves—they’re both framed in the upstairs window for the duration. And while they start out looking at each other, Tootie turns away and stares blankly into the distance after the first two lines, after which Esther stops singing directly to her and begins looking upward, as if pleading to God to make her optimistic words come true. Minnelli could stage a number with the best of them—look at this film’s “The Trolley Song” for a memorable example—but he also knew when simplicity would be more effective than choreography. When you have someone like Garland, who can be powerful and poignant in the same controlled breath, just point the camera in her direction and start it rolling. Little else is required.
It’s hard to imagine what it must have been like for audiences in 1944 to hear this song in the movie, as a brand-new tune, not knowing that people would still be listening to it regularly 70 years later—and that many of those people might be completely ignorant of its source. (One could even revere Meet Me In St. Louis and not know that its songs were original. Singin’ In The Rain’s mostly weren’t, to cite the most famous counterexample.)
Furthermore, the idea that everything will soon be back to normal, and that it’s necessary to “muddle through” until then, had a special resonance at the time of the film’s release. The end of World War II was just nine months away, but nobody knew that; when you recall how many people were dying, the rejected first-draft line “It may be your last” seems considerably less abnormal. That a song about Christmas reflects anxiety about the future channeled into a hesitant embrace of the present is no surprise. Its key words, arguably—at least here, in its original context—are the two that precede and follow the title: So (“Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas”) now.