Muddle Through, Somehow.
by Eric Peterson
As a staunch atheist eleven months out of the year, people are often surprised at how much I love Christmas music, but like anyone else, I contain Whitmanesque multitudes I suppose. Every year, between the day after Thanksgiving and about a week after New Year’s Day, I listen to Christmas music all the time, and I love almost all of it. I’ve been known to tear up listening to someone crooning “The Little Drummer Boy,” and whenever I hear Alvin the Chipmunk pine for a hula-hoop, I’m five years old again. I do draw the line at monstrosities like “The Christmas Shoes” or “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas,” because we all have limits. But throughout December, plus a few days on either side, my musical diet is 100% holly, ivy, Santa Claus, and Baby Jesus.
And yes, I do have a favorite Christmas song. Written for the film Meet Me in St. Louis by songwriters Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” was originally sung in that film by gay icon Judy Garland. Let me just pause here and say that Meet Me in St. Louis is a silly trifle with a paper-thin plot, turned into an undeniable classic for no other reason than it contains one of the single best screen performances of all time by Miss Garland. The screen absolutely adores her, and that’s probably because her future husband Vincente Minnelli (yes, Liza’s dad) directed her, and he was quite taken with her himself. The movie shouldn’t be nearly as good as it is, and her rendition of this song, toward the end of the film, is a big reason why.
And honestly, that’s a big part of the song’s appeal. When Judy F**king Garland sings, “make the yuletide gay” in a sparkly snood, it’s like a peppermint mocha with whipped cream and sprinkles for your ears. It doesn’t get any more Christmasy than that.
But the real reason this particular confection rises to the top is that it’s not tooth-achingly sweet. When it is sung correctly (and yes, there’s a right way and a wrong way), there’s a hefty dose of melancholy mixed in there that — ironically — makes the sweet bits even sweeter … like a dash of salt in your caramel.
To truly appreciate the song, you have to understand the context for which it was written. In Meet Me in St. Louis, the Smith family lives in an enormous mansion in turn-of-the-(20th)-century St. Louis, MO — a town they love, probably because it’s easy to love anyplace if you’re the richest people in it. The story is told in seasons — summer is first, and the family has very few problems. Judy has a crush on the gay boy next door, and there’s a minor scandal about when dinner should be served so that Judy’s older sister can receive a telephone call. Oh, the littlest sisters also stay up past their bedtime to observe their older siblings having a party downstairs. That’s about it.
The plot doesn’t really kick into high gear until autumn. Judy and the gay boy next door are officially an item, little sisters Agnes and “Tootie” almost kill a train full of people (which causes much laughter and merriment in the house), and the patriarch of the family announces that they’ll all be moving to New York City in the new year. Of course, everyone is thrilled at this news — New York is the most exciting place in America, and there are lots of straight men there that Judy could date.
I’m kidding, of course. The family is bereft when they hear that they’ll be leaving the most boring town in the universe right before the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition (a.k.a. the World’s Fair) was about to bring a fraction of the excitement one could experience on any given Tuesday in the Big Apple, and they imagine themselves living in apartment buildings like a pack of commoners. Straight men are overrated, Judy decides, as she cries herself to sleep. Seriously, this family is insane.
Which brings us to winter. The Smith’s enormous home is all packed up and ready for the move. Bright rectangles appear on the wallpaper where grand portraits used to hang, and the only thing the family has to look forward to is the Christmas ball that will take place days before they depart to New Yawn City and disappear forever into its gaping maw. Judy ends up going to the ball with her grandfather after her gay boyfriend spent a little too much time hanging out in the locker room with the fellas after basketball practice and forgot to pick up his tuxedo, but he still manages to ask her to marry him. Eager to be his beard and conceive in her womb another diva who can win the Oscars and Tonys she was robbed of, she says yes — but it’s a resigned and sad sort of acceptance, because she’s still off to the City That Never Sleeps in two days. B-O-O-O-ORING. Newly engaged and kissed for the very first time, Judy returns home to find little Tootie whining about moving away from the backyard where all the dolls she’s killed off have been buried (no, seriously, this whole family is nuts), and that’s when Judy and her fabulous snood sing my favorite Christmas song of all time.
At this point, we’ve all heard the song a million kajillion times, and therefore we might have forgotten that it’s actually about something. Specifically, it’s about someone who’s having a hard time getting into the Christmas spirit. And it’s not, to quote another Judy Garland classic, all about “forget your troubles, c’mon get happy.” It’s much smarter than that. Instead, this song says that while our troubles can’t be wished away, we can decide to scrape together whatever joy we can find by locating something in the present moment to be grateful for.
“Have yourself a merry little Christmas,” she sings — and the word “little” is really important. Oftentimes, people get so worked up as they attempt to place themselves into a manic ecstasy every December that they end up feeling worse than they did before — but Martin & Blane (and Garland, by extension) take a different approach. They’ve lowered the bar to simply having a merry “little” Christmas, which is attainable — and, in its way, joyful.
According to legend (and the internet), the next lyric was “It may be your last.” But Judy wasn’t having it. “If I sing that to that sweet little Margaret O’Brien, they’ll think I’m a monster,” she reportedly said, and she was probably right.
Thanks to Judy, the lyric we all know is, “let your heart be light.” And then, she continues, “Next year, all our troubles will be out of sight.” Many who cover this song will replace that lyric with “From now on, our troubles will be out of sight,” but that’s exactly the opposite of what the songwriters originally intended. In the original lyric, it’s clear that our troubles haven’t gone anywhere — but as troubling as they might be, they won’t last forever. “Next year” takes on special significance as I listen to this tune in 2020. As President-elect Biden says, we’re in for a “dark winter” where this COVID pandemic is concerned, but there’s every reason to believe that those who will survive will be in a much brighter place twelve months from now.
After that, there’s a few lines about being surrounded by the ones we love this time of year, “as in olden days.” It’s a gentle reminder that gratitude and anxiety can often co-exist, if we allow it. Then, Judy delivers the most important lines in the song. “Through the years we all will be together,” she sings, “if the fates allow. Until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow.” It’s that muddling through that keeps the sentiments of family and kinship and togetherness from being too sweet, too joyous, too unattainable. Yes, they’re genuine, but they come to us in fleeting moments, and in between, we all have some muddling through to do. What the song has been trying to teach us for three-quarters of a century is that only if you accept the muddling through, can you also feel the love that’s all around you.
“So, have yourself a merry little Christmas … now.” Now. Don’t wallow in the past, don’t stress too much about the future. Take stock of what surrounds you in this singular moment, even if it’s something as simple as a warm mug of coffee or a great old movie on TV, and decide to enjoy it. That’s what the song is about.
At this point in the film, Tootie responds to her sister’s advice on how to bring a little Zen into the madness of the holidays by throwing a tantrum and lopping the heads off the family of snow-people in the backyard. But we must forgive her; she’s been giving off latent homicidal tendencies throughout the entire film. The song really wasn’t for poor psychotic Tootie as much as it was for the rest of us — a potent reminder to enjoy what we have and find peace where we can.
Unfortunately, most of the artists who cover this wise and brilliant tune replace the best lyric in the entire song, the bit about muddling through, with “Hang a shining star upon the highest bough.” (The internet tells me that we have Frank Sinatra to blame for this, and who am I to argue.) They just plop it into the middle of the song with no context, and it makes almost no sense. Without this lyric, it becomes just another song of the season, telling you that you’re not as happy as you should be because it’s Christmas and people are happy at Christmas or at least they’re supposed to be and WHY AREN’T YOU HAPPY YOU MISERABLE FAILURE THE BABY JESUS WANTS YOU TO BE HAPPY. I mean, not really — but it does turn something profound and true into just another tune about “yay it’s Christmas,” which has the counter-intuitive effect of making most of us feel worse.
Unlike a lot of traditional Christmas tunes, this one is about a very particular thing. That thing is not a shining star upon the highest bough. Rather, it’s about the decision to look up at that tree-topper and say to yourself, “Life might be shitty, but that sure is pretty.” Obviously, I should leave the tunesmithing to Martin & Blane and others of their ilk, but hopefully you get my point.
Make the yuletide gay, everyone. Also, we should definitely bring back the snood.