The (St. Louis) Story Behind “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”

The front lyric sheet of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas"

The copyright submission for “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”

Few holiday songs strike a melancholy note quite like “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” the poignant Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane tune that summons hope in troubled times and the comfort of friends and family close by.

It wasn’t always so.

The original, unpublished version of the song (above), submitted to the Copyright Office at the Library in November 1943, made for a most bleak holiday:

Have yourself a merry little Christmas

It may be your last

Next year we may all be living in the past. …

Faithful friends who were dear to us

Will be near to us no more.

The song debuted in the the 1944 hit musical “Meet Me in St. Louis,” starring Judy Garland. In the film, Garland and her siblings learn the family soon will move across the country to New York — devastating news that would upend romances and friendships. The script called for Garland to soothe her youngest sister on Christmas Even by singing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”

She balked: Those lines would be more cruel than comforting to a kid afraid she’d never see her friends again.

Martin resisted a rewrite but eventually altered the lyrics to those Garland sang in the film, a version submitted for copyright 11 months after the original.

The new lines, wistful but warm, offered hope — to Garland’s on-screen sister, to an audience separated from loved ones by World War II. Seven decades later, they still do:

Have yourself a merry little Christmas

Let your heart be light

From now on your troubles will be out of sight.

Colorful movie poster for "Meet Me in St. Louis," featuring the faces of Judy Garland and other stars

The 1944 movie poster for “Meet Me in St. Louis.” Prints and Photographs Division.

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6 Comments

  1. Dmitri Gheorgheni
    December 21, 2021 at 3:04 pm

    That’s wonderful to know! Thank you for sharing this bit of history.

    The original version would definitely have depressed wartime listeners.

  2. Steve
    December 21, 2021 at 5:51 pm

    Interesting,thanks for that!

  3. Ethan Kent
    December 22, 2021 at 2:01 am

    Thank you for this post, Mr. Hartsell.

    (I had forgotten where, but) I read about the original more-“downer” lyrics to “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” (without the Library o f Congress copyright angle) in the pandemic-bleak December of 2020. (Which meant I had a sense of déja vu when reading your post.)

    The article I read I got from the online version of the Canadian newsmagazine Maclean’s (I was taught by your fellow Library of Congress blogger Neely Tucker to not post URLs in Comments, so I won’t here); the headline was (still is, online — actually) It’s the perfect pandemic Christmas song — but we don’t sing the right version”.

    *That* article emphasizes not the changes that you note in your post, but *further* changes made (it seems) for a recording by Frank Sinatra in 1957 (that article attributes the further changes to Hugh Martin) ; it states that the current usually-sung version of the song is the one tweaked for Sinatra.

    Best Wishes for a good Christmas.

    Ethan Kent (a Jewish reader)

  4. David Cannon
    December 22, 2021 at 7:04 am

    This is very interesting. I’m a huge fan of Judy Garland’s music and I never knew this song’s history.

  5. AAM
    December 22, 2021 at 11:45 am

    That’s our Judes! Yet another lasting gift from the most incandescent and moving performers the world has ever seen.
    Very interesting piece of history, indeed! Thank you.

  6. SlimJimJohn
    February 1, 2022 at 1:09 am

    Nailed it!

    I’m a faithful student of Robert Osbourne.

    Might have been one of the biggest disasters in movie History, and certainly have ruined the song forever.

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