A Special Christmas Song

In the season of joy, one song's poignant lyric recalls the darkest days of the Second World War and provides a message of hope for today.

By 1943, the full impact of World War II was felt in the United States.  American troops were fighting and dying in places that few had heard of -- places with names like Guadalcanal, Attu, and Tarawa in the Pacific.  In the European theatre, the invasion of Sicily was met with fierce resistance.  On the home front, the entire fabric of daily life changed as the economy switched to a war footing.  Strategic materials including sugar, meat, gasoline, and tires were rationed, and factories that formerly produced consumer goods were now engaged in the war effort.  Women replaced men on the production line, and Scout troops conducted scrap drives.

In Birmingham, Alabama, a songwriter named Hugh Martin (possibly with the assistance of his associate, Ralph Blane) composed a Christmas song for the MGM film Meet Me in St. Louis, starring Judy Garland.  The original lyrics were closely intertwined with the plot of the film -- a family having to relocate from St. Louis to New York.  Complaints that they were too depressing from Miss Garland and director Vincente Minnelli resulted in changes that enabled the piece to stand on its own.  The song is "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas."

Though the film is set in 1904, the lyrics contained unmistakably contemporary references when it was released in November of 1944.  On June 6 of that year, the Allies had successfully landed at Normandy, but at a cost of over 2,000 casualties.  Despite multiple Allied victories on both fronts and the liberation of cities throughout Europe, including Rome and Paris, the war was not yet over, and in mid-December, the Germans would launch a deadly final assault in the Ardennes -- the Battle of the Bulge.  On December 22 in the frozen hell of Bastogne, Brigadier General Anthony McAuliffe would respond to a German demand for surrender with one word: "Nuts!"

To a war-weary military and public, "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" provided a measure of solace when it was most needed as they found their situation uniquely reflected in the words.

"Have yourself a merry little Christmas,/Let your heart be light.../From now on, our troubles will be miles away" was certainly the hope of many.  "Faithful friends who are dear to us/Gather near to us once more" could be taken to mean both the immediate family and our military allies.  "Through the years/We will all be together, if the Fates allow" (originally "if the Lord allows") speaks for itself.

"Until then we'll have to muddle through somehow."  The use of the British-ism -- muddle through -- reflects an awareness of the English penchant for understated perseverance even in times of such adversity as the bombing of London and the Battle of Britain.

Following the debut of the movie, the song became extremely popular, especially among the military.  When Judy Garland sang it at the Hollywood Canteen, brave men wept openly.

Over the many Christmases since it was first heard, the song has retained its appeal and is considered one of the most popular Christmas songs.  It has been recorded by singers ranging from Ella Fitzgerald to Garth Brooks to Bette Midler.  In 1957, Frank Sinatra, in an effort to make the lyrics less melancholy, asked Hugh Martin to change the line "until then, we'll have to muddle through somehow."  Martin's response was "Hang a shining star upon the highest bough."  Although the latter version is the one most people are familiar with, in recent years, major talents including James Taylor have rediscovered the beauty and meaning of the original lyrics.

This Christmas, we are engaged with enemies on multiple fronts and at home.  The men and women in our Armed Forces are involved in Afghanistan, in Iraq, in Korea, and elsewhere.  Others are dispatched to contain the violence along our southern border.  On the home front, unemployment and recession are impacting the lives of our fellow citizens in numbers unprecedented in the modern era.  At such a time, both consolation and inspiration might come from looking back, in a shared musical moment, to another generation -- one that faced uncertainty, privation, and the immediate possibility of inestimable loss...but managed to "muddle through somehow."

So will we.

"Have yourself a merry little Christmas."