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‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’ Used to Be Much, Much Sadder

This winter, as yet another COVID variant threatens to undermine our Christmas party plans and add a layer of protective anxiety over airline travel and family hangs (get those booster shots, folks!), it’s all too understandable to be feeling a little more blue around Christmas than usual. Fortunately, American pop culture has lots of melancholy holiday options, from “Blue Christmas” itself to the Peanuts gang’s A Charlie Brown Christmas, which is very sweet but tinged with a layer of sadness throughout. December can be a glum month, and plenty of Christmas carols acknowledge that. And one did acknowledge that …until it didn’t.

“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” has an interesting backstory. Originally, the title was a bit of a troll — encouraging others to have a merry little Christmas while acknowledging that it was pretty unlikely. The song was written by Hugh Martin for the 1944 Judy Garland classic Meet Me In St. Louis. Listen to it now, if you haven’t heard it before.

Perhaps a bit gloomier than you’re used to from that tune? Well, it’s pretty cheery compared to what it was going to be. Martin’s original lyrics, which never saw light of day, ran thus:

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 may 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 Lord allows
From now on, we’ll have to muddle through somehow
So have yourself a merry little Christmas now

Yeah, it seems Martin was up in his feels when he wrote the song. Garland demanded he make the song more cheerful before she sang it, a request Martin initially resisted until actor Tom Drake berated, shouting that “You’re gonna foul up your life if you don’t write another verse of that song!”, as Martin later recalled. He gave the song a happier polish, but kept a slightly wistful tone. “Until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow” stayed, for example. The song was more about acknowledging the general crumminess of the current Christmas, but expressing optimism about better Christmases to come.

But even that didn’t last. Later, Frank Sinatra, who had expressed interest in covering the song on his upcoming Christmas album, legendarily said to Martin: “The name of my album is A Jolly Christmas. Can you jolly that up for me?”

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So, “it may be your last” became “let your heart be light” and “no good times like the olden days” became “here we are as in olden days” and so on. Martin’s treasured line about muddling through became “hang a shining star up on the highest bough.” It became definitive. Here’s Sinatra’s version.

But no one ever changed the plaintive melody so, in a way, Martin’s original mood endured. There’s still a bittersweet nostalgia to it. An awareness that bygone days seemed a little easier and faithful friends will soon be boarding planes and heading back to their normal lives. So if you’re finding yourself a little down this Christmas, you’ve got an understanding carol in one of America’s most enduring Christmas songs.

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