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Muddling Through Somehow

The devil’s always in the details. Never more evident was this than when I heard a December 21st report on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition about a new release of the Christmas classic, Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas, which was first written for Judy Garland who starred in the 1944 MGM Musical movie Meet Me In St. Louis. Of course there are probably hundreds of renditions of this song on almost every Christmas album ever made, but a new release from singer James Taylor made a startling departure from the song as most of us know it.
Mr. Taylor decided to use the original lyrics.

You see, the lyrics most of us know to this classic song, among the most beautiful and somehow heart-rending of the Christmas standards, tells of a bright Christmas holiday surrounded by friends with troubles being miles away “from now on.” But these aren’t the lyrics for which the actual music was written, and nor are they the lyrics a young Judy Garland sang some 58 years ago. When I heard NPR’s Alex Chadwick report the truth about the original lyrics, I suddenly realized why I never understood the mismatch between the song’s bright lyrics and its slow, introspective melody.

It’s because the modern version is a lie. And for that we can thank Frank Sinatra. When he decided to record the song on his Christmas album in the 1950’s, Sinatra used the line “Hang a shining star upon the highest bow” to replace the darker end of the phrase “Through the years we all will be together, if the fates allow; until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow .” Mr. Sinatra wanted to brighten the song and give it a happy ending.

But the song wasn’t created with a happy ending in mind. The original lyrics tell of a melancholy, yet hopeful, Christmas when “next year all our troubles will be miles away.” In modern, brightened versions, those lyrics became “from now on our troubles will be miles away.” The brightening process continued until all the dark undertones of the original version were erased: the tones of fear, regrets, sadness, and reflection that are inherent in every Christmas season for almost all who partake in it.

I feel robbed. And yet, I’m not surprised. In our modern, commercial Christmas whose roots can be found in the time Mr. Sinatra made the fateful change in lyrics, the prevailing assumption about markets is that only happiness sells. Who wants to be reminded of our losses and fears and the dark complexities of our relationships during “the holidays?” The phrase itself seems to sound a cheerful ring like a busy cash register at The Gap.

But for many of us, alone in a quiet room, those words-the holidays-don’t ring, they cut. We feel the pressure to put on a happy face, a happy show, and a happy song: the put-on of the holidays. And yet well-secluded in our minds (for how dare we break the holiday cheer?) are memories of the year’s lost loves, separated families, failed dreams, and shattered hopes.

There is no light without darkness. And that darkness was exactly what the original lyrics of Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas sought to express and allow us the space to experience-so that we can bring more meaning to the holiday’s brightness. Mr. Sinatra and other modern singers would have us only see the light, bright, and happy. And while there is virtue in persistent optimism and hope, there is no virtue in denial.
But this year there can be no denial. Richard Turner pointed this out on November 26th in The Wall Street Journal in his article about Taylor’s new release. The events of the final third of last year affected our nation at a collective level that even Mr. Sinatra couldn’t suppress. That’s why Taylor’s revival of the original lyrics has garnered so much attention; they speak to our collective sense of mourning and fear, and our collective hope that “next year all our troubles will be miles away.”
But while our collective sense of loss this year makes the original lyrics especially poignant, as most commentators have already pointed out, we shouldn’t forget in future years that the regular “put-on” of the holidays can only mean nothing if we don’t also allow ourselves the space to reflect on-and express-the sorrows that the holidays can bring to mind. So keep these original lyrics handy. Surely this isn’t the first and won’t be the last holiday season when you’ll find yourself having “to muddle through somehow.”

Historical Lyrics to “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”

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 are dear to us
Will be 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
So have yourself a merry little Christmas now.

Composed by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane
Courtesy of MGM Music

Popular Revised Lyrics to “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”

Have yourself a merry little Christmas
Let your heart be light
From now on your troubles will be out of sight.

Have yourself a merry little Christmas
Make the yuletide gay
From now on your 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 bow,
And have yourself a merry little Christmas now.

January 14, 2002
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