In 1944, Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane were asked to compose a song for the Judy Garland film "Meet Me in St. Louis." The collaboration resulted in what has become my favorite of all the great 20th century Christmas songs: "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." Lyrically nuanced and surprisingly melodically complex for a World War II pop song, it did something no other iconic Christmas song has done since: It acknowledged the melancholy many of us feel over the holidays.
Until Frank Sinatra got his hands on it and ruined it, that is.
'Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas' acknowledged the melancholy many of us feel over the holidays.
By the time "Meet Me in St. Louis" was released, the United States was nearly three years into war. It was six months after D-Day, and some of the fiercest battles of the war were being fought in Europe and the Pacific. In Asia and the Pacific Rim, the Battle of Leyte Gulf had just been fought, and in Europe, the Battle of the Bulge and the Allied invasion of Germany loomed on the horizon. While this foretold the end of the war in the year to come, late 1944 was perhaps the most dangerous time to be an American soldier.
Many of these fighting men had been deployed away from their homes for the entirety of the war, and holiday music of the time reflected a wistful vision of home with which poets and lyricists painted over the deep longing most of these warriors must have felt. "I’ll Be Home for Christmas" depicted a home life of relaxation and good cheer sustaining soldiers on the front line. "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" did the same but added a lyric that changed the entire complexion of the song:
Someday soon, we all will be together /
If the fates allow /
Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow.
In this — the muddling through — Martin and Blane acknowledged something that no other composers did at the time. Yes, at home and on the battle lines, people were doing the best they could, but it was not easy. That on both ends of two great oceans those absent were missed, and that life separated was harder than life together. It was honest, and that honesty lingers in the song today.
In 1957, the world was in a different place. The Cold War was in high gear, kicked up by the postwar activities of Joseph McCarthy. The baby boom was also on, and American industry, fueled by the financial and technological developments of the war, was in high gear. Space age was the theme of the day, and the nation was portrayed as a tinseled, glittering monolith on a shiny rocket-fueled hill. Frank Sinatra’s music of the 1950s reflected this new mindset, and he wanted his Christmas album, "Jolly Christmas," to fall in line. As such, he asked Martin to revise the line, “Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow,” as it was too depressing for the new America.
What resulted was the nonsensical:
Someday soon we all will be together /
If the fates allow /
Hang a shining star upon the highest bough.
The melancholy, still relevant and experienced by people throughout the nation, was painted over with a glittering shiny star. It lay hidden beneath the façade of Sinatra’s golden voice.
And this is what those of us who feel that special kind of holiday melancholy, who taste the bitter anise in the Christmas cookies, are still asked to do. We are chided to smile, to feel joy, to hide the sadness that mixes with the other, warmer emotions of this cold season.
...look for the muddlers, the sad eyes behind the strained smiles. See them. Hold them close, acknowledge their feelings, include them.
Or at least to pretend.
I’m lucky—my melancholy rarely rises above the level of annoying, but for many people, it can be crippling. Wherever one falls on the spectrum, however, the feelings are ubiquitous — one study found that 45 percent of Americans dread the holiday season. The feelings are also real; burying or hiding them can have negative impacts on general psychological functioning.
So, this holiday season, keep reveling. Drink a cup of Christmas cheer, eat another cookie, and, for the love of all that’s holy, please find me for that midnight kiss to ring in the New Year -- especially if you’re a ginger librarian. But also look for the muddlers, the sad eyes behind the strained smiles. See them. Hold them close, acknowledge their feelings, include them. If they can’t reach the highest bough with the shining star, help them lift it as high as they can -- and remember for next year where you left your ladder. They may well need you again.