Frank Sinatra rarely wrote lyrics but his reworking of a World War II era Christmas song made it one of the most popular of all time: the third most recorded Christmas song and one of the top-ranked of all songs.
Modifications prove a few changes can transform a song
The two versions of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” truly make this classic two very different songs, a moving ballad for people going through a depressing or difficult challenge and an optimistic upbeat somg of love and hope. A rarer third version makes the song even more versatile.
The original ballad for people going through hellish times
The 1943 World War II song written for the film, “Meet Me in St. Louis” was perfect for a time of war and global calamity. The original lyrics were adopted by James Taylor for a moving ballad version that came out right after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on America.
Just six of the 50 most popular covers of this song use the original lyrics but imagine singing these words to someone who has lost a loved one or a job or gone through some other sort of isolation or loss.
Below compare the original version sung by Judy Garland on the radio and a 2001 version James Taylor that revived those lyrics in 2001:
Lyrics from the James Taylor version we seldom if ever hear:
Taylor adds this thoughtful, mystical introduction not even included in the Judy Garland original: “Christmas future is far away, Christmas past is past. Christmas present is here today bringing joy that may last.”
Then he revived these original lyrics seldom heard since World War II:
“Have yourself a merry little Christmas, may your hearts be light. In a year your troubles will be out of sight…In a year, we all will be together if the fates allow. Until then, we’ll just have to muddle through somehow...”
People wept hearing this James Taylor version after 9/11. It’s powerfully moving for all who are or have known loss.
How Sinatra made “Have Yourself” a Christmas tradition
Sinatra wanted to record the song for his 1957 Christmas album, “Jolly Christmas” but insisted on key changes that made the sad song optimistic and jolly:
“In a year your troubles will be out of sight” became “From now on your troubles will be out of sight.”
Very American: Change starts today. Not a year from now.
Similarly, “In a year we all will be together,” perfect for families separated by someone going off to war became “Through the years, we all will be together.”
Lastly “”Until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow” became “Hang a shining star upon the highest bough.”
Sinatra actually sang both versions
Sinatra often did “up versions” and slower ballad versions of and called for the changes that made it a much bugger hit. He sang the original lyrics in the 1940s and and the up version in the 1950s but also performed the the original version on on a subsequent t TV special: