Shalom, salaam, shantih and peace.
While ringing a bell for universality, I pose a question to observers of Christmas. It's a question 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…
Question: Will you merely “muddle through somehow” or will you “hang a shining star upon the highest bough” this Christmas season?
And does that choice represent the difference between realists and idealists, or just Judy Garland and Frank Sinatra?
(To hear Garland, click here. For Sinatra.... here).
OK, it's a question topped with froth, I admit, but I maintain it's deep and rich underneath. And so it haunts certain philosophers and music lovers at Christmastime. 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 various versions of “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” to play on the radio.
Be warned: The song has two endings, so unless you've listened carefully each year as our mother 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 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 collection of moving Christmas cards 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 holiday fixture 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 is saccharine to some tastes, but it's warm and beautiful and spiced by a script containing irreverence and whimsy. My favorite lines toll from O'Brien, surely the most heartbreaking child actor of all time who—telling why she can't possibly move to New York--replies with spunk and a tear in her little girl 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 go 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. 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.
Garland found the words too depressing, so Martin changed them for the film, so 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 only depressing but predictable.
The prettiest, and perhaps most meaningful line in caroling, only made it to the song in 1957, when 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.
So go ahead, it's not too late, hang a shining star upon the highest bough…
And… you know….
* A slightly different version of this column by Don Williams first ran about three years ago....