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"Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" is a song introduced by Judy Garland in the 1944 MGM musical Meet Me in St. Louis. Frank Sinatra later recorded a version with modified lyrics, which has become more common than the original. The song was written by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane. In 2007, ASCAP ranked "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" the third most performed Christmas song during the preceding five years that had been written by ASCAP members.
The song was written while Martin was vacationing in a house in Birmingham, Alabama, that his father Hugh Martin designed for his mother as a honeymoon cottage. The house was located in the Southside section of the city, across the street from Hugh's mother and right beside her aunt. The song first appeared in a scene in Meet Me in St. Louis, in which a family is distraught by the father's plans to move to New York City for a job promotion, leaving behind their beloved home in St. Louis, Missouri just before the long-anticipated Louisiana Purchase Exposition begins. In a scene set on Christmas Eve, Judy Garland's character, Esther, sings the song to cheer up her despondent five-year-old sister, Tootie, played by Margaret O'Brien.
The sentimental setting of the tune in the finished scene features understated orchestration by Conrad Salinger and musical direction of Georgie Stoll.
However, when presented with the original draft lyric, Garland, her co-star Tom Drake and director Vincente Minnelli criticized the song as depressing:
Have yourself a merry little Christmas, it may be your last,
Next year we may all be living in the past
Have yourself a merry little Christmas, pop that champagne cork,
Next year we will all be living in New York.
No good times like the olden days, happy golden days of yore,
Faithful friends who were dear to us, will be near to us no more.
But at least we all will be together, if the Fates allow,
From now on we'll have to muddle through somehow.
So have yourself a merry little Christmas now.
Though he initially resisted, songwriter Hugh Martin made several changes to make the song more upbeat. For example, the lines "It may be your last / Next year we may all be living in the past" became "Let your heart be light / Next year all our troubles will be out of sight". Garland's version of the song, which was also released as a single by Decca Records, became popular among United States troops serving in World War II; her performance at the Hollywood Canteen brought many soldiers to tears.
In 1957, Frank Sinatra asked Martin to revise the line "Until then we'll have to muddle through somehow". He told Martin, "The name of my album is A Jolly Christmas. Do you think you could jolly up that line for me?" Martin's new line, "Hang a shining star upon the highest bough," has since become more widely recognized and sung than the original phrase. Martin made several other alterations, changing the song's focus to a celebration of present happiness, rather than anticipation of a better future. On The Judy Garland Show Christmas Special, Judy sings to her children Joey and Lorna Luft with Sinatra's alternate lyric.
Although the 1957 rewrite is the most familiar to listeners today, the Judy Garland lyrics have been recorded by a number of artists, including Sinatra himself (in 1950 and 1963 single recordings), Doris Day (in The Doris Day Christmas Album), Ella Fitzgerald (in Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas), and James Taylor (in October Road).