are closing in on the big day and
it’s way past time to honor the greatest
performance of a modern secular
Christmas song ever. Period. No
arguments. The crown goes to Judy Garland singing Have
Yourself a Merry Little Christmas to Margaret O’Brien in the 1944 film classic Meet
Me in St. Louis.
some ways the part of the second
daughter Esther of the comfortably middle
class St. Louis Smith family was a step back for
Garland to the juvenile parts where
she had gained fame. She had finally
broken through being cast as a young
woman in Presenting Lilly Mars. But she was back to playing a love struck high school girl.
the other hand, producer Arthur Freed
was planning to make the biggest MGM
musical to date in Technicolor
and directed by studio ace Vincent Minelli. In addition to Garland and O’Brien—the
most popular child star since Shirley Temple, the cast included Mary Astor as Mother, Leon Ames as Father, Louise Bremmer as older sister Rose,
and Tom Drake as the boy next door. It also featured solid support by veteran
character actors Henry Davenport, Marjorie Main, and Chill Wills.
film was adapted from auto-biographical short stories by Sally Benson, originally published in The
New Yorker. It was divided into
a series of seasonal vignettes,
starting with Summer 1903 of a year in the life of the Smith family in St.
Louis, leading up to the opening of the Louisiana
Purchase Exposition—the St. Louis
World’s fair in the spring of 1904.
Journeyman songwriters Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane were commissioned to write
songs for the film, although other composers
were also expected to add numbers including Boys and Girls Like You and Me by
Rodgers & Hammerstein original written for their Broadway musical Oklahoma! but cut prior to its opening. The same fate befell the song when Minnelli
reluctantly cut it because the film was running long. Martin and Blane’s contributions became
American classics and standards—The Trolley Song, The Boy Next Door and of course
the Christmas song all sung by Garland.
Garland herself intervened to demand
important changes to the lyric of Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.
Martin’s original lyrics began, “Have yourself a merry little
Christmas / It may be your last / Next year we may all be living in the past.” She recognized that it was way too depressing
to sing to the inconsolable child
mourning the imminent departure of the family from St. Louis to New York City. “I’ll look like a sadist,” Garland complained.
The words were changed to the now familiar “Have yourself a merry little
Christmas/Let your heart be light/From now on your troubles will be out of
A performer herself since the age of 3
and understanding the pressure that stage parents and the studio put children through, Garland
formed a special protective bond
with young Margaret O’Brien and spent much of her time off camera with the
girl. It was a memory they would both
treasure and often talk about.
never looked lovelier than she did
in this film with her hair dyed auburn and
smitten director Minnelli literally
caressed her face on screen. The young
actress and the middle aged director fell in love on the set and were soon married.
other versions of the song have been recorded.
Frank Sinatra had lyricist
Martin revise the words to “lighten them up” from the still melancholy version sung by Garland for
his 1957 album A Jolly Christmas. The
only version to come near to the power of Garland’s performance was by Karen Carpenter in The Carpenters the 1978 album Christmas Portrait
nearly—but not quite—matched the original.