While “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” is usually just a step below “Jingle Bells” in a list of saccharine, overly-jolly holiday music, the version you probably know has been heavily altered from the original.
Written at first for Judy Garland’s performance in Meet Me In St. Louis, the song arrives at a point in the show when the lead family’s patriarch is preparing to leave his family for a job in New York City. While the original version began “Have yourself a merry little Christmas/It may be your last”, the lyric was changed (after protest by Garland herself that the song was too depressing) to “Have yourself a merry little Christmas/Let your heart be light”. The line “faithful friends who are dear to us/Will be near to us/Once more” originally said “Will be near to us/No more.” It ends with how “someday soon we all will be together” but only “if the fates allow/Until then/we’ll have to muddle through somehow.”
It’s a drastically bleaker view of the holidays than most shopping mall soundtracks will allow. The holidays are generally a dark time for many if not most people; the plastic symbols of our happiness we hang upon the tree are far outweighed by the disappointments in our bank accounts and credit card bills. The entire economy of Christmas is one centered on guilt and loss, equating the love of your family with jewelry and iPads, less tangible but far more fragile. Even if you can afford to stuff the bottom of the tree with expensive gifts, you still must stare into the face of the overworked, underpaid retail worker who’s meager salary depends on you loving your family enough to buy them a PS4. Hell, every year we all gather around the TV to watch George Bailey attempt suicide.
Some of the most popular songs associated with this time of year reflect this attitude, even if they don’t get the credit for it. “White Christmas” was written by Irving Berlin in a posh Beverly Hills hotel, likely reflecting on his poor, snowy childhood in Belarus (“just like the ones I used to know”), showing how we can mourn even for the nostalgia of a rough upbringing. Hymnal-based tunes like “O Holy Night” and “Silent Night” are about as cheerful as a Catholic mass, filled with minor keys and tragically-meager joyful sounds. They preach the awesome power of the birth of Christ (if you’re into that sort of thing) but use horrifying language to do so, telling you to “fall upon your knees” or how “shepherds quake at the sight.” It sounds less like the coming of a savior and more like the nativity is being invaded by a kaiju.
“I’ll Be Home For Christmas” was originally a Bing Crosby single to be shipped overseas to GI’s in Europe and the Pacific. While it seems to promise a return home, the song ends with the doubt of not just any service member but anyone away from home, crooning mournfully “I’ll be home for Christmas/If only in my dreams.”
For god’s sake, “Grandma Got Runover By A Reindeer” because she was drunk and forgot her medication! And she died!
Why, in this season that is supposedly so full of cheer and joy, do we surround ourselves with such a depressing atmosphere?
There are two types of people who celebrate Christmas: Those who do their best to make everything perfect and those who know that is a fool’s errand. Christmas being a “special” day does not make it immune to the troubles of everyday life, and no manner of “holiday cheer” cures that. If the music we listen to year round is not immune to heartache and longing and fear and sorrow, why should Christmas music be?
When you get right to the heart of it, Christmas kinda sucks. It’s cold and grey and rarely full of bright, pure snow (the stuff you break your back shoveling and scraping away). The decorations are gaudy and you’re expected to be happy no matter what–even when you’re surrounded by such awfully depressing music. You family joining together in a meal and ritual only highlights how little you all choose to see one another the rest of the year. Not to mention you’re all flat broke buying gifts for one another.
But I love these depressing Christmas songs. They highlight the balance of dark and light we attempt to strike every year–if the fates allow. They highlight the glorification of our own home just like the one we used to know. They let us know it’s okay to struggle for happiness if only in our dreams. And isn’t that what Christmas is about ever since we were children? Hoping and begging for that one last thing we want, that one thing that will make us forever happy if we can just get our hands on it? And if we don’t, I guess we’ll muddle through somehow.