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Why this famous Christmas song feels particularly poignant in 2020

Sad and yearning, yet hopeful.
/ Source: TODAY

Christmas holiday songs usually have a way of getting us right in the feels.

But especially in 2020, a year that's been full of so much strife and challenge, there's one tune that seems especially meaningful: "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." Written in 1943 and originally sung by Judy Garland in the 1944 film "Meet Me In St. Louis," it has lyrics that speak to the heart of everyone in a special way right now.

Just take a listen:

In the film, Esther (Garland) is singing to her younger sister Tootie (Margaret O'Brien) to make her feel better about the family's imminent relocation from St. Louis to New York; the young girl's emotional reaction to the song ultimately convinces dad that the family should stay right where they are.

But it's about the lyrics: "Someday soon we all will be together/ If the fates allow/ Until then, we'll have to muddle through somehow/ So have yourself a merry little Christmas now."

Heimweh Nach St. Louis, Meet Me In St. Louis
Margaret O'Brien (Tootie) and Judy Garland (Esther) in "Meet Me In St. Louis."United Archives via Getty Images

Aaah, yes. Perfect: Sad and yearning, yet hopeful.

What might surprise you, though, is that there are other lyrics you might even be more familiar with. Frank Sinatra, who covered the tune in 1947 as is, wanted some of the lyrics changed for a 1957 rendition, deciding it was too depressing. "He called to ask if I would rewrite the 'muddle through somehow' line," songwriter Hugh Martin told Entertainment Weekly in 2006. "He said, 'The name of my album is 'A Jolly Christmas.' Do you think you could jolly up that line for me?'"

And that's how we got "hang a shining star upon the highest bough" instead of having to muddle through, somehow, among other small tweaks. Those "faithful friends who were dear to us" became more present-tense: "Faithful friends who are dear to us/ Gather near to us once more."

Frank Sinatra Sings
Frank Sinatra, king of jollying up Christmas tunes.Hulton Deutsch / Corbis via Getty Images

The song has since gone on to be a Christmas season staple; it's been rerecorded by everyone from Michael Bublé to Kelly Clarkson to Sam Smith (whose rendition is in the Top 20 most streamed songs on Spotify) to Twisted Sister.

So you can decide which version you prefer — and bear in mind, without Garland's intervention the song might have been even sadder! According to Maclean's, Martin's original lyrics were: "Have yourself a merry little Christmas/ It may be your last/ Next year we may all be living in the past."

Garland was not having that at all, so Martin made things more upbeat. And so we can all muddle through, or hang our stars on boughs, and hope that if the fates allow, the holiday season for 2021 truly will be a merry one we share together.

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