Friday, December 19, 2008

A Merry Little Christmas

There are Christmas songs and carols and hymns that I like far and above any others, among them "Adeste Fidelis," "Silent Night," "Do They Know It's Christmas," any of those Vince Guaraldi "Charlie Brown Christmas Show" songs, and the David Bowie/Bing Crosby "Little Drummer Boy." But no other song quite has the power and punch and emotional impact for me as "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." Like any Christmas song, there are many versions of it and many are done quite badly by people who just sing it without understanding it. It wasn't until just last year that I discovered how great this song, in the right hands, could be.

"Have yourself a merry little Christmas,
Let your heart be light,
Next year all our troubles will be out of sight..."

Because I had my own beliefs as far as how I thought the song came about, I looked into its origin and uncovered just how many layers there are to the story. Because of the lyrics, which speak of being away from dear friends and maybe being with them again next year, I thought that it was a World War II-era song, perhaps originally sung by Frank Sinatra. Would have been a great story, but not quite the case, although Frank figures quite prominently in the story of the song, but later on in its history.

Hugh Martin wrote the song for the 1943 Judy Garland movie, "Meet Me in St. Louis." Judy thought the song was too maudlin, that people would hate her character for singing such words, so he lightened it up a bit (but not too much -- the original said "Have yourself a merry little Christmas/It may be your last..." the newer version was just as sad-sounding, but more along the lines of "we'll be together some day," instead of "no more Christmases for you!" I paraphrase.)

"Have yourself a merry little Christmas,
Make the yuletide gay,
Next year all our troubles will be miles away..."

While "Meet Me in St. Louis" was a hit movie, Christmas songs apparently weren't such a big deal back then, so it didn't become a hit (that distinction went to "The Trolley Song). Still, what with all the turmoil Judy was going through and would continue to go through in her personal life, the scene where she sings that song stands as a mesmerizing moment, where some real truth shines through.

Sinatra sang the song in 1947, but 10 years later he went to Martin and told him he wanted to do the song again, but he wanted it to swing just a bit and the lyrics needed to change for this new version. Martin surprisingly (hey, are you gonna argue with Sinatra?) went along with the request and changed tenses into the present, as well as taking out the "we'll have to muddle through some how," and replacing it with "hang a shining star upon the highest bough!"

"Once again as in olden days,
Happy golden days of yore,
Faithful friends who were dear to us,
Will be near to us once more..."

Whatever lyrics are used, the song still has a maudlin, wistful, sad quality to it. It rolls right over all the silly, goofy Christmas songs, and among the season's secular songs, this one is as close to sacred as you can get. Anybody can sound happy. Anybody can act happy. But it takes someone who has truly lived to be able to convey these sort of feelings to you, whether they are singing or acting or writing. That's part of the appeal for me of a singer such as Morrissey, for instance, or the sad songs of the Carpenters -- there's just so much more there to appreciate and relate to. Just because someone is singing a sad song doesn't mean they or those listening will slit their wrists when the last note is played -- rather, I think, they know what it's like to be happy, they know what it's like to be sad, and they won't ignore the bittersweet feelings, they won't pretend things are OK when they are not. But through it all, they smile at the memory of a happy day and somewhere in their hearts, somehow, they keep hope alive that they may yet again share in those happiest of days with the ones they love.

"Someday soon we all will be together,
If the fates allow,
Until then, we'll have to muddle through somehow
(Hang a shining star upon the highest bough)...

And have yourself, a merry little Christmas now."

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