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Welcome to The 12 Days of Christmas Songs: an attempt to uncover the forgotten history of some of the most memorable festive tunes. From December 14 through 25, we’ll be tackling one secular song and one holy song each day.


“There’s no place like home” is a quote from a very different Judy Garland movie, but it encapsulates the spirit of Meet Me in St. Louis just as well. In the 1944 musical, Garland’s character, Esther, is the second-oldest daughter to the Smith family, living happily in St. Louis until her father is called to relocate to New York for work. On Christmas Eve, Esther comes home from a holiday ball to find her younger sister worrying Santa won’t be able to find them after the move.

Meet Me in St. Louis was set in 1903, but the song “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” was written in 1943 by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane before filming began, during World War II. Martin’s original lyrics, he told NPR’s Terry Gross in 2006, were deemed too sad, so he was obliged to rewrite them. The first set went:

Have yourself a merry little Christmas
It may be your last
Next year we may all be living in the past
Have yourself a merry little Christmas
Pop that champagne cork
Next year we may all be living in New York

After Garland protested that it would be unnecessarily cruel to sing these lines to a brokenhearted younger sister, Martin wrote the lines she sang in the film:

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

It’s a cheerier perspective, for sure, but there’s still a lingering sense of melancholy, which manifests in the film when Esther’s sister responds to the song by running outside in her nightgown and smashing up all the snow-people she’s crafted in the front yard. The song also held special resonance for American soldiers fighting in Europe when the movie came out, and Garland sang it live at the Hollywood Canteen, a club for servicemen on their way overseas.

There’s a particular sadness in the lines Garland sings at the end of the song, implying both loss and the wartime obligation to endure:

Some day soon we all will be together
If the fates allow
Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow

In 1957, Frank Sinatra asked Martin to write a cheerier update for the song, which prompted the new line, “Hang a shining star upon the highest bough.” And it’s this version that performers typically use now, from Bette Midler to Babyface to Sam Smith. As much as Garland’s version will always be the definitive one, the song has prompted a number of moving interpretations. One of my favorites is by James Taylor, using the original lyrics, because it captures the bittersweet nostalgia and homesickness so many people feel around this time of year.

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