Hangin’ High or Muddlin’ Through

[This post is borrowed from my friend Flaco’s blog: http://www.toofarfromtown.blogspot.com/%5D

According to the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP), Have treeYourself a Merry Little Christmas, written by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane, is the ninth-most popular Christmas song so far this year. Recordings of the song by various artists were played on the radio 38,395 times between October 1 and November 28. Unfortunately, data are not available to show how many times each of the two versions of the song’s lyrics was played.

You may not have known there were two versions; you hardly ever hear but one of them nowadays.  The most popular version—the one you hear 99% of the time—goes like this:

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 yuletide 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.

A few years ago, I was only vaguely aware that there might be two versions of the song.  I remembered hearing something about “muddling through” in the lyrics of the song, but I heard them only every once in awhile.  I didn’t give the matter much thought except to think that those were unusual words for a Christmas song.  Then I heard the song played one December night on the radio, and the announcer referred to it as the “original version recorded in the 1940’s.”  Everything then fell into place for me.  The 1940’s!  I’ll bet it was during the war, I thought.  A quick internet search confirmed my hunch.

The first recording of Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, sung by Judy Garland, was released by Decca records in 1944.   Think of what it must have been like for Americans judygarlandthat Christmas.  Gasoline, rubber, nylon, shoes and other essentials were being rationed because the war effort needed them.  People had planted “victory gardens” in their backyards to grow their own food.  They were conducting paper and scrap-metal drives and buying war bonds.  All across the country, families had husbands, fathers, sons, and brothers in combat theaters “somewhere in the Pacific” or “somewhere in Europe.” (That’s all the military censors would allow the servicemen to say about their locations in the letters they sent back home.)  From October through December of that year, for soldiersexample, General MacArthur’s army was fighting the Battle of Leyte in the Philippines, and in Leyte Gulf the navy fought what some say was the greatest battle in naval history.  Allied troops were fighting their way across Europe, and beginning in mid-December many were fighting desperately in the snow to repulse the German counteroffensive in the Battle of the Bulge. And whether servicemen’s families celebrating Christmas back home in 1944 said it out loud or not, they worried they might never see their loved ones again.  They dreaded the knock on the door from the Western Union boy, and of course, many had already received that life-changing telegram from the War Department.

Here are the words that Judy Garland sang that Christmas:

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.

Once again as in olden days,
Happy golden days of yore,
Faithful friends who were dear to us
Will be near to us once more.

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.

I understand (I’m getting much of this from Wikipedia by the way–credit where it’s due) that Judy Garland’s recording was a wartime favorite among American servicemen. And this original version of the lyrics was recorded by a few other singers as well. But things jolly sinatrachanged in 1957 when Frank Sinatra prevailed upon the composer to change the words of the song so that Sinatra could include a less bittersweet version in his album, A Jolly Christmas. Hugh Martin accommodated Sinatra by writing a jollier set of lyrics. He changed the song’s future-looking point of view — “next year” and “someday soon”– and replaced it with “from now on.”  And most tellingly, he deleted the muddling-through and, in its place, hung a shining star upon the highest bough.  But the title remained the same, which presents something of an anomaly.  If things in the Sinatra version are so hunky-dory now and will be from now on, why is it still just a  merry little Christmas?

The shining-star version has since been recorded many, many times by many, many singers (including Judy Garland, herself).  It’s pretty much all you hear nowadays (although James Taylor, bless his heart, did record the muddling-through version on his 2006 CD James Taylor at Christmas).

I much prefer the muddling-through version to the shining-star version, and it’s a shame we hardly ever hear it.  Its lyrics fit the scaled-down, subdued, merry little Christmas of the song’s title much better than the shining-star version does.

To my way of thinking, we still need the original version of the song, because there’s still plenty of muddling-through to be done at Christmas.  I guess there always will be. Take war, for example. By my rough count, there have been 22 Christmases since 1944 when Americans were serving in combat zones. (It’s a rough count, because it’s hard to keep up with the dates that some wars start and stop, as you know.) That’s twenty-two Christmases when there were American families uncertain that their loved ones would return home alive — and were muddling through the best they could in the meantime.

And there are plenty of other reasons besides having a family member deployed in a war stewartzone why a person or a family might find themselves muddling through a Christmas and hoping that things will be better next year: illness; unemployment; recent divorce; a recent death that has shaken a family’s very foundation. Under such circumstances, it will take quiet heroism for the folks involved to make Christmas merry, and if they achieve a merry Christmas at all it is likely to be a little one.

My family is doing just fine this Christmas, and I hope yours is, too.  But that could all change in a heartbeat.  Or with a telephone call.  Or with the delivery of a pink slip.  If we are not among the ranks of the muddling-through today, we could be tomorrow.  It seems to me that it isn’t asking too much to have at least one Christmas song for people who are just trying to muddle through.

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About nowandthenadays

Observer of life who writes about Austin, women's issues, history, and politics. I retired as a Texas Assistant Attorney General after almost 40 years in state government in May, 2013.
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5 Responses to Hangin’ High or Muddlin’ Through

  1. Jamie Krieg says:

    Interesting article – – As a Christian, I am blessed that I don’t have to ” just muddle-through” Christmas.  Having Jesus Christ, my Savior,  in my life, everyday, means I look forward to celebrating His birth.  I may not be “ready for Christmas” in the  way that the world means, and I may be struggling at Christmas-time,  like everyone else,  with challenges in my life.  But, when it comes to  the birth of our Lord, I am ready for Jesus and I REJOICE  because ” my hope and  expectation  are from Him”.                                                  Psalm 62:5                                                                             Love,   Jamie 

    • You aren’t the only one who doesn’t relate to the “muddling” concept, Jamie. My son’s father-in-law, career military, wrote me this: I did indeed muddle through in Winter of 1963 in the snows at Goose Bay Labrador and at Christmas of 1973 at Nakhon Phanom in the jungles of Thailand. Was on temporary duty to Kunsan Korea Christmas of 1984. But really never ever thought of it as muddling. Just in the line of duty.

  2. Karen W says:

    I like the original lyrics better than the “new and improved ones” because in some form or fashion we are all muddling through something. And this time of year, it’s doubly difficult because we are expected to put on a happy mask and pretend that all things are good.

  3. Love this story! The original lyrics fit the bittersweet melody so much better. Thank you for sharing from one who is muddling through.

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