Hugh Martin & Ralph Blane — 1944
One of the most famous and melancholy Christmas classics, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” has been performed and recorded year after year after year after year since its creation in 1944, and why not? It’s not just super cozy; it’s also one of the few classic Christmas tunes for the lonely holiday experience. If you’re making a scene for a movie where some sweater-clad wretch sadly looks out a window at gently-falling snow, longingly thinking of their absent partner/family/love interest/mid-west polka king, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” is the soundtrack.
Like a good handful of the best 20th century entries in the Christmas songbook, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” was written and composed in the 1940s, and like several other staples, it was produced for a film. American composing duo Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane (or just Hugh Martin, according to Hugh Martin) wrote the song for the MGM film Meet Me in St. Louis, a musical dramedy starring Judy Garland about the four Smith family daughters and their trials and tribulations leading up to the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, and the family’s move to New York.
The film is divided into a series of seasonal vignettes and, appropriately, the song appears in the film’s Christmas quarter. On Christmas Eve, Judy Garland’s Esther comes home from a dance to find her kid sister “Tootie” (yes, that was considered a name in the 40s) distraught over the prospect of her family’s move. In an effort to console her sister, Esther sings “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” Sadly the song doesn’t help poor Tootie, and she proceeds to go outside and devastate a snowman.
Given that “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” isn’t one of those happy Christmas songs, it isn’t surprising that it not only failed to cheer up a five year old, but instead drove her to take out her feelings across a snowman’s face. The crazy thing is, those were the revised lyrics. The less-depressing draft. When Martin presented the song to the cast before the filming began, Judy Garland, being the boss she was, called out the lyrics for being too depressing, and demanded Martin change them to better suit the film.
Though initially resistant, Martin did eventually edit some of the lyrics, removing shockingly morbid lines like “It may be your last / Next year we may all be living in the past” to a more optimistic “Let your heart be light / Next year all our troubles will be out of sight.” You can add that to the list of things for which we should all be thankful to Judy.
Meet Me in St. Louis was a massive critical and commercial hit, making over $6.5 million on its original run (which is almost $93 million in 2019 money, and that was in 1944, when the biggest war in human history was reaching its peak), and in 1994, the film was preserved in the United States National Film Registry after being deemed “culturally significant.” Judy’s version of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” became a massive hit in its own right, and was released as a single that year. It became especially popular among American troops, so it was a no-brainer to put Judy in front of some servicemen. She performed the song at the Hollywood Canteen, a club that offered allied troops food and dance when they arrived home, and, as she would, brought the room of hardened soldiers to tears.
The song, however, was still a bit of a downer, and when Frank Sinatra recorded the song in 1957 (his second recording, after a version in 1959), he also came to Martin with grievances about the lyrics. Reportedly, he told Martin, “The name of my album is A Jolly Christmas. Do you think you could jolly up the line for me?” And so, Martin had to once again modify his song, changing the line “Until then we’ll just have to muddle through somehow” to “Hang a shining start upon the highest bough.” Martin also changed the lyrics from future tense to present, giving the song more of a celebratory feel than the previous version. He also used the altered lyrics again when he took a third stab at the song in 1963.
It seems like all the lyrical changes forced upon his song eventually got to Martin, and in 2001 he (probably) said, “I will not be walked all over anymore by legendary singers. I’m taking control of my life.” He threw his own hat in the ring, and made an entirely new version of the song. “Have Yourself a Blessed Little Christmas” was the outcome, and yes, it’s a more religious version of the song. He recorded the new version with gospel singer Del Delker, and that seems to be kind of as far as that one got. It doesn’t seem like it was ever meant to overthrow the original, and that’s probably for the best because I’d never heard about this before reading up on the original.
Other versions of the song have seen success in the last 60 years, including a version by Michael Buble in 2011 that hit 98 on the top 100 charts and James Taylor’s version, though never a charting single, has become decently popular in recent years, but those were all trumped in 2014 when Sam Smith’s recording hit number 90 on the Billboard Hot 100, the first time a version of that song charted on a Billboard list. Smith doesn’t do anything particularly adventurous with the song, but its tasteful, minimal production and Sam’s smooth croon make for a cozy listen during the holidays.
For a pretty depressing track from an MGM film that wasn’t a Christmas movie, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” has managed to become a holiday staple, and it’s one of those songs that offers a warm, refreshing twist on the formula that most songs of its vintage can’t. It’ll be around for a long time to come, one version or another.
Probably not the religious one.