John Sieger
Sieger on Songs

The Greatest Christmas Song Ever

Why Judy Garland’s “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” can’t be beat.

By - Dec 15th, 2016 04:30 pm
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Judy Garland

Judy Garland

Some people hate Christmas songs. I happen to love them. It’s not out of religious obligation — this catalog of songs would rival The Beatles and Dylan put together no matter what they were about. But there’s no denying the topic is inspirational for religious and cultural reasons. Here’s how I know this ongoing and ever-expanding cloud of joy we call holiday music is great. When listening to any of the scores of carols and songs I love, I’m certain at that moment they’re the best one ever written. I can say this without doubt till I hear the next one that lifts me once again above all the commercialization to a less cynical plane.

Some people say ”White Christmas” is the best Christmas song. Written by the genius Irving Berlin, it’s certainly in the running. I’m not really sure how he was able as a Jew to capture something so deep about a holiday he probably never celebrated as a child. Another beloved entry is “The Christmas Song” by Mel Torme. Great melody, lovely lyrics, another gem. And there are so many others. But “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas,” always in my Top Ten, hangs tinsel on my heart strings every time I hear it. Tears are hard to come by in the Sieger family, but the great last verse, one of the most wistful and vulnerable ever created, creates certifiable mistiness every time.

I was going to try to use Frank Sinatra’s version, if only to prove I’ve grown to like him. But the polish and professionalism in his smooth arrangement tamps down the emotion for me. It hits my ear sounding a little bit like an ad for his dazzling technique. So I went back to the original version by Judy Garland, another adult onset favorite of mine. I missed the point when I was younger than that — she was so unlike The Rolling Stones. I now view her as a supreme artist. Her ability to get inside a song and disappear, leaving only meaning and emotion, is a wonder to me. She sang this song in the movie Meet Me In Saint Louis. This clip from the movie will separate the hipsters from those who spend less time in irony land. It’s a litmus test of sorts, at least in my book. Being unable to receive this pleasurable blast of joy and melancholy, somehow twisted into something excruciatingly beautiful, doesn’t seem possible. I could imagine plants loving this.

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
Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow
And have yourself a merry little Christmas now

© Hugh Martin & Ralph Blane

The last verse is truly one of my favorite lyrics. In the movie, the character played by Garland is singing to her four-year-old sister. Their family is in a relocation crisis — the father has been offered a job in New York. The Wikipedia page for this song provides an interesting story on how a lyric can evolve. This time the pressure to tweak it came from Garland and director Vincent Minnelli.

They found it too depressing and they were right. The first first verse was altered. Later, at Sinatra’s insistence, the writers dropped the second to last line for “Hang a shining star upon the highest bough.” It’s a horse apiece, both do the job, but I like the original, “Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow.”

The camera moves to the little girl while Garland is singing that verse. You can see a tear welling up. Even at that tender age, she feels the shakiness in that bargain with fate. There is no defense against it. Muddling through, the American version of a stiff upper lip, is challenging. It was 1941 when this song appeared and she sang it to soldiers with very uncertain futures. They had a lot to think about and the sentiment hit home. This is a wish that is close to a prayer, even if it is merely a secular one. As usual it’s poignant and timely, because great songs by great performers are as solid and permanent as any marble statue.

So now drink your eggnog and enjoy yourself. I’ll have time for one more Christmas song before Santa drops in. I’m open to suggestions.

Note: Expanding on last week’s Soundcloud lecture, Professor Sieger sings it and talks about it in this sure-to-be-viral Youtube video.

8 thoughts on “Sieger on Songs: The Greatest Christmas Song Ever”

  1. Margaret Casey says:

    Beautifully written, John, and I so agree. I’ve been practicing singing it with a friend for the family Christmas party, and I find I can’t make it through our lovely harmony at the end without choking up. Merry Christmas!

  2. Benny Nota says:

    Can you imagine the controversy if this were a new song? “If the Fates allow”? What is this pagan nonsense? WAR ON CHRISTMAS!

  3. mbradleyc says:

    That’s the beauty of opinions. Everyone gets to have one. Mine is different from yours. “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” is by far the best.

  4. Tim Somers says:

    Agree with your sentiment about the power of this song, but the lyrics you include are not exactly what Judy sang. You missed the pathos, the longing for next year that permeates the song by citing reworked lyrics. Also, if you listen to her original version she actually sang “faithful friends who were near to us will be dear to us once more”…adds a lot to the tear jerker index!

  5. Christina Zawadiwsky says:

    Then there’s also Bing Crosby’s The Little Drummer Boy, a great Xmas classic!

  6. Thomas says:

    Thanks, John, for reminding us of Judy Garland’s “Have Yourself a Merry … ” I have been listening to inferior versions of that song on 93.3 and on 95.7 fm. Garland owns that song – as she owns “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” Other singers who sing either of the above should credit her before and after each performance.

    Which version of “Silver Bells” do you prefer?

    “Have Yourself a Merry Christmas,”

  7. Ellen Warren says:

    As a child I learned every lyric to the songs on the Firestone Christmas albums. (Are you familiar with them? ) Although I’m hard pressed to do it now, I could even sing all the many verses of Good King Wenceslaus. I particularly loved that one because it told a heart warming story. That’s my vote, followed by the lilting Carole of the Bells.

  8. John M says:

    Great choice! Here’s a playlist of some lesser-known Christmas music: https://open.spotify.com/user/qaz23/playlist/22Hs4AlaOFExwI0cOEBHSj

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