It’s said to be the third most performed Christmas song each year, and if you listen to one of those Christmas music stations on the radio, you’ll believe it. Because everybody and their dog has sung the song, from Frank Sinatra to Doris Day to Ella Fitzgerald, Connie Francis, Jackie Gleason, Luthor Vandros, even Sweet Baby James Taylor. But, of course, it was Judy Garland who first made it famous, singing it long ago in a 1944 MGM musical called Meet Me in St. Louis.
Now just in case you’ve haven’t seen that movie lately on Netflex or Hulu, it’s a pretty simple plot, for it’s about a family from St. Louis which is about to move to New York City for the father’s job promotion. But they’re leaving St. Louis just before the long-anticipated World’s Fair of 1904, and everybody is upset about it, especially the five-year old daughter of that family, Tootie. (Not the same Tootie that was on The Facts of Life, by the way—that came about forty years later!) And so to cheer her up, her big sister Esther played by Judy Garland sings her this song on Christmas Eve.
The original lyrics written by Hugh Martin were rejected as too depressing, however, for they went something like, “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.” And I suppose for a lot of folks that would be a kind of depressing notion. So Martin changed the words about it being that’s family last Christmas before living in the past to “let your heart be light/next year all our troubles will be out of sight.” Which was better, and certainly more realistic than the wildly optimistic modern assertion that the song now suggests–“from now on our troubles will be out of sight.”
But then there were other problems with the song, as well. Because when Frank Sinatra sang it 13 years later, he complained to Hugh Martin that the name of his album was A Jolly Christmas, and so could Martin please jolly up the line that originally said “in a year we all will be together if the Fates allow, until then we’ll just have to muddle through somehow.” Yeah, who wants to just muddle through Christmas– that doesn’t sound very merry at all! So Martin changed it again so that Old Blue Eyes could sing instead “Hang a shining star upon the highest bough.”
But, you see, sometimes the truth is that we do have to muddle through to the manger somehow, for the upcoming holidays can get pretty frenetic, can’t they? So sometimes we simply need to put one foot in front of another one, do what needs to be done, deal with whatever comes up, and start over when we have to. Someone has noted that this is part of the wisdom of twelve-step programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous– they don’t focus on lifetime solutions, they don’t promise that things will be great “from now on” forever and ever–no, they talk about daily victories–staying sober one day at a time.
Which is perhaps why when James Taylor–himself no stranger to difficult personal circumstances–put out his recording of the old holiday classic with the original “muddling” words that he wrote a note to the radio stations to accompany it which said, “It’s a sweet simple message–just get through the hard times and there will be better days ahead.”
And that’s the message of Christmas that the Advent season points us towards. For the truth is, none of us have perfect lives or perfect circumstances in our lives. Some of us struggle with the same kind of demons that James Taylor has–with depression and substance abuse. And some are fighting disease either in their own bodies, or in those of people whom they love. Others are worried about their finances, and boy does Christmas put a strain in that area for a lot of people. (After all, why do you think they call it Black Friday?) And still others are just plain burned out because life has come at them hard and they’ve been just a little–or a lot–beaten down by it.
What Advent reminds us of, however, is that there is indeed something–indeed Someone–coming into this world that can change everything. We just have to wait until that Someone gets here. That’s why St. Paul writing to the church in Galatia told them that as children of this earth, we’ve all been enslaved to the basic principles of the world. But when the “fullness of time had come, God sent His Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship,” with all of the legal rights which that term implied in Roman culture.
Or to put it another way, until Christ, we were all just muddling through life, but now, there’s a new possibility for every one of us. We just have to learn how to wait upon the Lord sometimes, for that is when we shall indeed renew our strength.
It was Dietrich Bonhoeffer, writing from a Nazi prison camp, that once observed that “A prison cell, in which one waits, hopes– and is completely dependent on the fact that the door of freedom has to be opened from the outside— is not a bad picture of Advent.” And then he went on to say that “Not everyone can wait: neither the sated nor the satisfied nor those without respect can wait. The only ones who can wait are people who carry restlessness around with them.”
So until then when it comes to the tough parts of life we may indeed just have to muddle through somehow. But again, not as those who have no hope, for you and I know–just as Bonhoeffer likewise understood so long ago–that change is coming. And that’s what makes Advent so exciting, I think, for it is an annual reminder of the fact that when the world was at its very darkest, God sent His light into it. Which means as well that we can trust God with whatever may come our way, even if it’s an unexpected change of our circumstances.
Indeed, that’s really what Hugh Martin wanted to say in his muddling little song about a merry little Christmas. For the original words which Martin penned never said anything about the Fates controlling the events of our lives, as though what happens to us depends upon some impersonal force that does not know us. Rather, in the original version that was changed for the movie, Martin said, “Through the years we all will be together if the Lord allows.” And in 2001, at the age of 86, Hugh Martin finally got the chance to change those lyrics back, writing an entirely new version of his classic entitled, “Have Yourself a Blessed Little Christmas.”
In short, the door of freedom really is about to swing open from the outside. Blessed indeed are all those who are ready to be free.
(Devotional shared at the evening Advent Celebration at Christ Church, 30 November.)