“Deck the Halls” and “Jingle Bells” are swell Christmas songs. But the best holiday classics have a warm fuzzy, almost wistful quality.
There’s “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” “White Christmas,” and, arguably, the greatest of them all: “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”
What many people may not know about that last number, though: It originally had a different set of lyrics, and was something of a Yuletide downer — to put it mildly.
The song was penned by Hugh Martin for the 1944 MGM musical, Meet Me in St. Louis, starring Judy Garland.
The plot: A family is saddened to learn that they’ll be moving to New York City after their father gets a promotion, and will have to leave their beloved St. Louis home just before the 1904 World’s Fair is about to hit town.
In a three-hanky scene set on Christmas Eve, Garland’s character, Esther, sings the ballad to cheer up her heart-broken little sister, Tootie, played by the tear-making machine that was five-year-old Margaret O’Brien.
Take a look at some of the less-than-lighthearted lyrics Martin composed before filming began:
“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”
According to Hollywood lore, Garland thought the song was too sad (ya think?), and asked Martin if he could lighten it up a little.
He initially refused, but the actress stood firm, saying, “If I sing that to that sweet little Margaret O’Brien, they’ll think I’m a monster!”
The composer finally caved, coming up with new, less depressing, lyrics: “Have yourself a merry little Christmas, It may be your last, Next year we may all be living in the past” changed to “Have yourself a merry little Christmas, Let your heart be light, From now on your troubles will be out of sight”; “Faithful friends who were dear to us, Will be near to us no more” became “Faithful friends who are dear to us, Gather near to us once more.”
Meet Me in St. Louis became a big hit, and Garland’s version of the song became popular with U.S. troops during World War II. (A performance at the Hollywood Canteen, a club that offered entertainment to servicemen on their way to battle, brought many soldiers to tears.)
But there wasn’t much of a commercial market for Christmas tunes at the time, so the song disappeared for a while.
Then, in 1957, Frank Sinatra decided to include the song on a Christmas album, A Jolly Christmas.
Now it was the crooner’s turn to ask for a tweak in the lyrics — asking Martin if he could rewrite the “Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow” line, reportedly telling him, “The name of my album is A Jolly Christmas. Do you think you could jolly up that line for me?”
Not about to tangle with the mercurial Chairman of the Board, Martin changed the line to a decidedly happier “Hang a shining star upon the highest bough.”
Smart move by Sinatra: The upbeat version became the classic so many of us listen to and love today.
Over the years, the song has been recorded thousands of times by artists as eclectic as Bing Crosby, Doris Day, Ella Fitzgerald, The Pretenders, James Taylor, Luther Vandross, and heavy metal headbangers Twister Sister.
Today, people are divided as to which version of the song is better, and, as Martin has noted “half the people sing one line and half sing the other.” Recently, though, some singers have been opting for the sadder sentiment.
James Taylor returned to the song’s original melancholy lyrics after 9/11, releasing the song as a record later in 2001. Whichever rendition, the song — sentimental and, yes, kind of sad — remains a touching and enduring classic.