It was a song for the ages and a song for the moment. It was a song too sad for Judy Garland to sing after the first draft, so she asked the writers to rewrite it. Written by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane in 1943, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” first pierced the hearts of listeners in the 1944 film Meet Me in St. Louis. At the time of the film’s release, World War II was nine months from ending, but of course, no one knew it yet. Sad but hopeful lines like “Next year, all our troubles will be out of sight” resonated with audiences whose loved ones were serving overseas, as the reality of their futures together was uncertain.
Garland’s rendition reached number 27 on the Billboard charts. Since then, numerous artists have crooned those longing lyrics in various versions, from Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, and Doris Day, to more recent covers by James Taylor, Michael Buble, Lady A, and others.
Now, in December of 2020, every time I try to sing along with the lyrics, “In a year, we all will be together, if the fates allow / until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow,” my throat catches. How did Martin and Blane know exactly how I would feel this Christmas season, as we socially distance and cancel gatherings with friends and family? How did they know we would need to make a merry little Christmas, tucked in our respective houses with immediate family, our pets, or perhaps even alone, left to do our best to survive the holiday? How could they see the fear, the worry, and the uncertainty cloaking every home like heavy coats of snow?
Music has a way of capturing all the feelings of a moment in time, transporting us back to that one night, that one kiss, that one December, that one heartbreak, forever reminding us of the truth of our shared human experience.
Songs have been with us for ages. In one of the oldest surviving texts describing the Exodus, Miriam, older sister of Aaron and Moses, led all of Israel in the “Song of the Sea” (Exodus 15:2), written as many as 3,000 years ago. One hundred and fifty songs are recorded in the Book of Psalms, capturing the breadth of the emotional relationship between the people of Earth and the God of the universe. Mary sang her song of praise and wonder after the angel Gabriel arrived to deliver the news of a coming Savior.
Songs defy space and time. They connect us to others living in this particular era and to the generations of people who came before us. These people experienced joy and tragedy, sorrow and delight, and captured their emotions in such a way as to remind us that we’re not alone…even when we have to be alone. When we are on the other side of our separation, it will be glorious together, and these words will never be more true: “Faithful friends who were near to us, will be dear to us once more.”
Perhaps one of the reasons “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” survives the ages is because it doesn’t hide the sorrow Judy Garland’s character feels but at the same time, the lyrics don’t leave us in despair. Instead, they compel the listener to, “have yourself a merry little Christmas now.” The outlook for the future may be bleak in 2020, but do what you can to invite joy and delight into the gray haze of these dark days, now.
Leave the Christmas lights on. Light a few more candles. Look for ways to live and to love and to serve so as to make the light of this season shine a little brighter. Where so much space is made, make space for the ones in your own home. Be fully present with the ones under your roof. Bake cookies for neighbors and healthcare workers. Make signs and cards to thank the people who work day in and day out to keep the world moving. Give to local food pantries, toy drives, and pregnancy centers to bless the ones who might need a little more “merry” this year than they can afford. This is the way, as the song implores, to “let your heart be light.”
Keep the songs of the season playing to remind you of past sorrows and joys, past suffering and victories, past losses and delights, all of which have brought you to this Christmas, this Christmas now, this Christmas today. Make it a merry little one.
Check out our Root & Vine rendition of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas“ courtesy of Kate Tucker.