The original lyrics to ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’ weren’t very merry at all

14 December 2020, 13:47 | Updated: 14 December 2020, 14:21

Judy Garland singing 'Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas'
Judy Garland singing 'Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas'. Picture: Loew's, Inc.

By Maddy Shaw Roberts

Did you know ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’ could have had very different words? A glimpse into the journey the famous Christmas song has been on…

‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’ is the musical equivalent of a warm hug; a gently melancholic melody sings out a narrative of festive hope, telling of a nostalgia for past times – “happy golden days of yore” – but faith in the future – “From now on, our troubles will be out of sight”.

Judy Garland, the shining star of Hollywood’s Golden Era, sang it first for a scene in Meet Me in St Louis (1944) in which her character comforts her younger sister, Margaret.

The song “began with the melody,” says songwriter Hugh Martin. “I found a little madrigal-like tune that I liked but couldn’t make work, so I played with it for two or three days and then threw it in the wastebasket.”

But his collaborator, Ralph Blane, heard it and reckoned Martin was mad to throw it out. “We dug around the wastebasket and found it,” Blane recalled. “Thank the Lord we found it.”

But, the lyrics weren’t quite right.

Read more: What makes Christmas music so Christmassy? >

So, producers requested a rewrite.

The song’s original lyrics, as dreamed up by Martin and Blane, evoked a very different Christmas feeling: ‘Have yourself a merry little Christmas // It may be your last // Next year we may all be living in the past.’

Garland objected to the lyrics, apparently, saying they were too depressing and if she were to sing them, “Margaret will cry, and they’ll think I’m a monster”.

Eager to please their leading lady, Hollywood executives requested a rewrite. “They said, ‘No, no – it’s a sad scene, but we want sort of an upbeat song, which will make it even sadder if she’s smiling through her tears,” Martin said.

But Martin, who has since claimed the whole soundtrack was his work alone with no contribution from Blane, wasn’t keen for a rewrite. He had to be firmly nudged by a friend, actor Tom Drake, to write a new verse.

And eventually, he did.

Read more: The story behind the most disturbing Christmas carol >

Judy Garland sings to younger sister character, Margaret O'Brien
Judy Garland sings to younger sister character, Margaret O'Brien. Picture: Loew's, Inc.

Which version do we hear today?

Today, two versions are popularly sung. There’s the version Martin tweaked for Judy Garland – “Someday soon we all will be together, if the fates allow. Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow” – which is a rather poignant listen this year, as many families around the world are physically apart.

There’s also a later version by Frank Sinatra, who asked Martin to sprinkle a little festive joy on that rather downbeat line for his Christmas album.

And that’s how ‘Hang a shining star upon the highest bough’ came to replace Garland’s melancholic lyric.

Now you know the story, here are the full original lyrics…

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.
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.
But at least we all will be together.
If the Lord allows.
From now on, we'll have to muddle through somehow.
So have yourself a merry little Christmas now.

And here are the ones we sing today.

Have yourself a merry little Christmas
Let your heart be light
From now on
Our troubles will be out of sight

Have yourself a merry little Christmas
Make the Yule-tide gay
From now on
Our troubles will be miles away

Here we are as in olden days
Happy golden days of yore
Faithful friends who are dear to us
Gather near to us once more

Through the years we all will be together
If the fates allow
Hang a shining star upon the highest bough
And have yourself a merry little Christmas now

Here we are as in olden days
Happy golden days of yore
Faithful friends who are dear to us
Gather near to us once more

Through the years
We all will be together
If the fates allow
So hang a shining star upon the highest bough
And have yourself a merry little Christmas now.