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On covering “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” evolving lyrics, and Christmas blues

I have a very limited relationship with modern covers of Christmas classics. How could anyone who didn’t live through the 1940s capture the true meaning of “White Christmas” and “I’ll Be Home For Christmas”? Why would I listen to Bublé when I have Sinatra and Bing and Nat King Cole? But every once in a while, I will stumble across something that makes it into the ‘canon’; these tend to be more somber versions of the original (I’m trying not to read too much into that). One of my more recent discoveries, Phoebe Bridgers’s 2017 spooky cover of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” makes me wonder why Christmas songs are changed, and why I like some changes but not others.

“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” was written by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane for Judy Garland in the 1944 movie musical Meet Me in St. Louis. Garland’s character and her family are facing an imminent move from their beloved home in St. Louis to New York, where their father has been offered a job, and she sings the song in an attempt to comfort her youngest sister. It is a deeply heartbreaking scene that leaves both characters in tears; Garland and her onscreen sister clearly don’t believe the message that the song is trying to convey.

A 2018 Vice article on the song revealed that, however tragic the scene is in the film, the first version of the song was even more devastating. Judy Garland reportedly looked at the first version and said, “If I sing that, little Margaret [the actress playing her sister] will cry and they'll think I'm a monster.”

Here are selections from the song in the film:

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

And here are the lyrics from the first version:

Have yourself a merry little Christmas

It may be your last

Next year we may all be living in the past

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

The Vice article goes on to report that when Frank Sinatra was recording the song in his 1957 A Jolly Christmas, he took issue with even the film version. The stanza in question here comes at the end: “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.” It was the ‘muddle through’ line that was too much of a bummer, and he replaced it with the now widely popular “So hang a shining star upon the highest bow.”

This incredible ranking of the 50 best versions of the song from The Awl actually designates whether each one went with the ‘muddle through’ lyric or the ‘shining star’ lyric. From their chosen top 50, 11 of the covers include ‘muddle through,’ but only six of those eleven include only ‘muddle through’ without also including ‘shining star.’

If you know anything about Phoebe Bridgers, it will not be a surprise that she chose to sing ‘muddle through,’ though knowing how rare that version is lends the choice more meaning. Her cover exchanges Garland’s grounded alto and orchestral accompaniment for Bridgers’s soft ethereal soprano and a guitar-percussion combo that makes you feel like you are listening to an old radio underwater, or in a dark echoey stadium.

The reason I like Bridgers’s cover so much is because it feels like a new translation, rather than a re-imagining. The song is supposed to be sad and hopeful, whether or not the singer believes what they are saying, and the ethereal instrumentation communicates that message in a new way. Compared to Sinatra’s determined jolliness, I prefer the acknowledgement that there is some ‘muddling through’ to do, even as there are things to look forward to in the future. With COVID-19 deaths skyrocketing and isolation being more important than ever, this holiday season is going to be really different from the ones that came before. We have been saying ‘next year, next year, next year’ to ourselves for so long and time has become so confused that it seems like March was simultaneously yesterday and a hundred years ago. How are you supposed to do Christmas like that? I don’t know. We muddle through.


Emma Cooney is a junior in the SFS studying Culture and Politics and the Editor-in-Chief.


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