News, notes, and observations from the James River Valley in northern South Dakota with special attention to reviewing the performance of the media--old and new. E-Mail to MinneKota@gmail.com

Friday, December 21, 2012

Have yourself a muddling little Christmas

 The shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School a week ago make it particularly hard to utter the words "merry Christmas".  The mass slaughter of 20 first graders and 6 educators is hardly, in the minds of most people, an occasion for celebration, but it is an occasion for trying to relieve the burden of sadness and despair caused by an incomprehensible malice.  It is our contemporary Wounded Knee.  Inadequate as it may be, the worst of America puts on display America's best.  To that end, I reprint this post from five years ago on the song "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas."  It reaches into the great American song book to express the best we can do at this time. 

Sometimes Christmas wishes are profane. When people devoted to war-mongering, speaking ill of others, and spreading ill-will during most of the year presume to lecture on the Christian meaning of Christmas, it is the ultimate perversion. It profanes the entire message of peace on earth and good will to all people. It elicits the response of bah, humbug to the profanity.

But there are antidotes to the poisoning of Christmas. A few nights ago, I was infused with one of those antidotes. It was Lou Rawls singing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” on Jim Clark’s Jazz Nightly on SDPR. That song, along with Mel Torme’s “Christmas Song” is one of the most frequently recorded and played Christmas songs. Some people regard it as a secular song, but in many ways it captures the true theological significance of Christmas as no other songs and carols have.

A Lutheran church I belonged to years ago had a group of men that referred to themselves as the Christmas Group. It included a number of professors from a nearby college and seminary. On Christmas Eve and Day, you could find the men cooking and serving the transient and homeless at a soup kitchen, or delivering food and messages of acknowledgment and good will to the elderly in their homes or nursing homes, or working poor neighborhoods to see that families had food and warmth and a word or two of respect and hope. However, the Christmas Group did the same thing every day of the year.

To people in dire straits and without reason for hope, a “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays” is an impertinence. Such greetings do not cheer them. They serve to remind them of and emphasize their humiliating circumstances. The purpose of the Christmas Group was not to merely mouth good wishes once a year, but to make the message of Christmas manifest 365 days a year.


“Have yourself a merry little Christmas” captures the ambiguity of Christmas. It is sad and hopeful at the same time. Hugh Martin wrote the song for Judy Garland to sing in the film “Meet Me In St. Louis.” She thought the first version was too dark to sing. Martin changed part of the lyric which read : Have yourself a merry little Christmas/
It may be your last /Next year we may all be living in the past

The movie version read: Have yourself a merry little Christmas/Let your heart be light
Next year all our troubles will be out of sight

That version is not quite as brooding, but still retained the poignant element the gives the song its expressive force. However, when Frank Sinatra wanted to record the song, he asked Hugh Martin to change even more. Sinatra thought these lines were a downers:

Someday soon we all will be together
If the fates allow
Until then, we'll have to muddle through somehow
So have yourself a merry little Christmas now
Hugh Martin changed them so Sinatra could sing:
If the fates allow
Hang a shining star upon the highest bough
And have yourself a merry little Christmas now

The change does not eliminate the provisional quality that gives the song its reflective power.

When the early Christian missionaries came to Europe, they were successful in part because they used the pagan symbols and rituals for the celebration of the winter solstice to portray the significance of the birth of Christ. However, the old celebration was hard to suppress. The American puritans, in fact, banned the celebration of Christmas.

“Have yourself a merry little Chistmas” is a song that recognizes that all is not right in the world. But it embraces the Christian principle of celebrating our gifts of family and friends and striving to make things better. That’s what my former colleagues at St. John’s Lutheran Church tried to do. Muddling through is often the best we can do.
Below are three versions of the song. Choose your preference. But have yourself a merry little Christmas.

ORIGINAL VERSION
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

JUDY GARLAND VERSION
Have yourself a merry little Christmas
Let your heart be light
Next year all our troubles will be out of sight
Have yourself a merry little Christmas
Make the yuletide gay
Next year all our troubles will be miles away
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
Someday soon we all will be together
If the fates allow
Until then, we'll have to muddle through somehow
So have yourself a merry little Christmas now

FRANK SINATRA VERSION
Have yourself a merry little Christmas
Let your heart be light
From now on, our troubles will be out of sight
Have yourself a merry little Christmas
Make the yuletide gay
From now on, our troubles will be miles away
Here we are as in olden days
Happy golden days of yore
Faithful friends who are dear to us
Gather near to us once more
Through the years we all will be together
If the fates allow
Hang a shining star upon the highest bough
And have yourself a merry little Christmas now

All three versions of ''Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas'' by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane 1943, 1944 Renewed 1971, 1972 EMI Catalogue Partnership (successor to LOEWS) (PWH)/admin. by EMI Feist Catalog Inc.

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