For a good number of Christmases I have thought about getting these thoughts down in writing. I’ve made some less than successful attempts in the past, but this year I gave it another try. This version seems about as close as I will get to expressing why I think we need one particular Christmas song to be the song it was when it first appeared, and not the version that is most commonly heard today.
I was 24 years old and a captain in the Army. It was 1968, and I was home on leave after finishing Vietnamese language school in Texas. When my leave ended, I would fly to San Francisco and board a military transport to Saigon.
I would arrive in that sad country about 10 days before Christmas. With luck, I would return a year hence, also at Christmas.
I was ambivalent about heading for the war zone. I would be in a relatively safe job. I would be doing something related to radio broadcasting, which I had pulled some strings to make happen when it became evident when I was in Germany that my number was coming up for reassignment to Vietnam soon.
Of course the prospect of going to Vietnam did come with at least a modicum of anxiety, but I had known many military colleagues who had come and gone without serious repercussions, so I was pretty much taking it all in stride.
And what I expected to happen there turned out to be pretty much the case. It wasn’t without unpleasantness, but as with my colleagues, my life as a “Saigon Warrior” was not particularly dangerous, and all of us assigned this duty realized that there were many others in country who were having far worse experiences than we were. We were grateful for our relative comfort and safety while constantly mindful of the greater sacrifice others were making nearby.
Interestingly my most lasting memory of that long-ago time relates to the time just before I left for Vietnam. It was just before Christmas 1968.
I wasn’t fearful or particularly stressed out, but I was experiencing a kind of ennui, a vague discontent at the prospect of going to war, not really knowing what would be entailed.
And there were some things that gnawed at me. I never expressed openly any misgivings about our nation’s involvement in the war in Southeast Asia, but if asked, I would have registered disagreement with our presence there in a general sort of way. And I felt like my compatriots who had not been corralled into military service were getting a jump on me in beginning their adult lives and careers. All things being equal, I’d have just as soon been doing almost anything else.
That was more or less my state of mind as I waited out the time before I was to leave. Still unmarried and unattached, I was spared the intense pain of pending separation from wife and children that some of my friends had to endure. To pass the days I decided I would join in pre-Christmas festivities until I left. There were parties to attend, decorating to do, and Christmas shopping to do.
Amid this low-key holiday hubbub before departing for Saigon, one simple, at-random little experience has stayed with me, and I think about it without fail every year at this time. I treasure this experience even though at the time it amplified my misgivings about going off to the war zone.
I was driving home from a nearby mall after doing some shopping when I began to pay attention to the lyrics of one version of a particular Christmas song that was playing on the car radio. It was Judy Garland’s version of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”
It was she who introduced the song in the film “Meet Me in St. Louis.”
I had never noticed that the lyrics as sung in the film and in the familiar recording I was listening to conveyed such a melancholy sentiment:
“Have yourself a merry little Christmas; Let your heart be light. Next year all our troubles will be out of sight.”
Next year? Troubles?
Then the lines:
“Someday soon we all will be together, if the fates allow.”
“Someday?” “If?” How tentative that sounds.
“Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow.”
The words bring to mind the “stiff upper lip” mentality displayed by the British at Christmas as German bombs rained on them during the build-up to World War II.
I am about to go off to war, and it’s Christmas. I guess I’ll be “muddling through somehow” until next year when those “troubles will be far away.”
I sat for some time reflecting on those seemingly prescient lyrics that somehow seemed to fit my circumstances. I thought about how many others were in far worse circumstances than I faced. Most were younger than even my tender age. Would they be able to muddle through?
What did the songwriter have in mind when he chose to express this particular set of emotions in this particular song? It was easy to guess given the sense of the scene in the film where the song appears. It’s about dislocation, and Judy Garland’s character is singing it to comfort her little sister, Tutti. (Rent the film; it’s worth seeing.)
Every year since then I listen for this gentle little song during the annual heavy radio play of Christmas music. Strangely, somewhere along the line since the Garland version of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” first became a Christmas standard in 1943, the lyrics were changed. I don’t know why, and I don’t want to know. But if you listen to nearly any modern version of the song you will notice the difference. It’s not plaintive; the longing is gone. It’s happy and sometimes bouncy. I hate that, but so be it. You can still find the original lyrics in a handful of versions if you look, and I hope you will.
I always pause for a brief moment of wistful reflection when I hear the Garland version of this song at holiday time. Perhaps there is a small element of maudlin false self-pity in this—probably so—but I know that there is also a sense of my connection to our common humanity.
Through the years since I first noticed the words to this poignant little song I have come to learn that there will always be circumstances that spread around more than enough negative experience to give everyone her or his own version of what it feels like to know disruption and separation from “faithful friends that are dear to us.” For a host of possible reasons, they won’t always be with us at this time of year when we especially value their presence. Other “troubles” will loom from time to time as well.
And so we need that little reminder each year that “Once again as in olden days, happy golden days of yore” there is the hope that “we all will be together”—perhaps next year. Hearing this song each year awakens that assurance in me, just as it did long ago when it seemingly was speaking directly to me.
All we have to do is “muddle through somehow” until that time comes.
So we must have hope for better times despite whatever comes our way. That hope is seemingly more available to all of us at Christmas.
So “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas Now.”