Shalom, salaam, namaste shantih, kapayapaan and peace.
While ringing a bell for universality, I pose a question to observers of Christmas, one that bestirs itself to haunt me in a tuneful way each holiday season, and so I pass my quizzical spirit of Christmas past along to you…
Did you “hang a shining star upon the highest bough” or merely “muddle through somehow” this Christmas season? (Either way it's not too late, unless you're catching up to this in 09).
And does that choice represent the difference between….
Idealists and realists?
Traditionalists and progressives?
Or just Garland and Sinatra?
Some would say it's a question that separates purists from subversives.
OK, it's a question topped with froth, I admit. Silly on the surface, but I maintain it's deep and rich underneath.
And so it sometimes haunts philosophers and music lovers. And because it involves one of the most beautiful and subtle tunes ever, it's a question I take pleasure in considering as I listen for “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas,” the song from whence it springs.
Be warned: The song has two endings, so unless you've listened carefully each year as the earth slips into darkness of winter solstice and thereby come to know each crooner's take, you'll have to wait until the next to the very last line—don't forget to pay attention—to discover which version you're hearing.
Is it the one that emerges from darkness to embrace light, or the one that embraces darkness?
Is it maudlin to suggest one should hang a star upon the highest bough?
That's the heart of the question, the conundrum of the season, isn't it?
You'll not hear any advice about hanging a star if you should sit to watch “Meet Me in St. Louis” (1944, Vincente Minelli dir.), the movie that made the song famous. It just might be the best Christmas card ever to pose as a film. I made viewing it a ritual occasion after reading a sweet essay by Knoxville librarian Nelda Hill two or three years ago. Hill chronicled how the movie had become a permanent holdiay fixture among rituals at her family hearth.
In the film, Judy Garland croons the song to her sister, a character played by 7-year-old Margaret O'Brien, when it appears their happy family must leave their beloved St. Louis home.
The film's saccharine to some tastes, but it's warm and beautiful and spiced by an edgy script containing irreverence and whimsy. My favorite lines emanate from O'Brien, the most heartbreaking child actor of all time (yes, including Shirley Temple) who—telling why she can't possibly move to New York-says with both spunk and a tear in her voice….
“I'm starting a tunnel tomorrow from our garden right under the streetcar tracks into Mrs. Middleton's terrace. While she's walking around her lawn, I'll grab her by the leg… I'm not going till I'm finished.”
But leave she must, or so she comes to believe, and if you know the story of the song, maybe you heard that composer Hugh Martin originally penned lyrics almost comically bleak. According to WordHappy, a feature of a blog at toddiedowns.wordpress.com, they included:
Have yourself a merry little Christmas
It may be your last….
Faithful friends who were dear to us
Will be near to us no more.
Judy Garland found the words too depressing, so Hugh Martin changed them for the film, though the song ended on the lines….
Until then, we'll have to muddle through somehow,
and have yourself a merry little Christmas now.
With apologies to traditionalists, that closing always struck me as not just depressing but predictable.
The prettiest and perhaps most meaningful line in caroling only made it to the song in 1957, when Frank Sinatra asked Martin to brighten the words in keeping with the mood of Sinatra's album, “A Jolly Christmas,” then in the works.
And so Martin bestowed the gift of….
Hang a shining star upon the highest bough.
Try singing without raising your eyes to some starry beyond as your voice ascends the phrase.
I confess that each year I try to hang such a star if only in a metaphorical sense (my wife prefers an angel atop the tree) and this is what I'd prescribe for you.
Go ahead, it's not too late, hang a shining star upon the highest bough…
And… you know….