The Bizarre (But True) Story Of A Beloved Christmas Song

My favorite secular Christmas song is “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas.” I love the poignancy of the song. In the midst of these hopeful lyrics celebrating the season, there’s a melody that’s wistful and almost nostalgic. It’s a beautiful song.

I have a dozen different versions of the song on my iPod, from artists like Amy Grant, The Pretenders, David Gray, Lady Antebellum, John Denver & The Muppets, and The Carpenters. My favorite version has to be the one from a CD called That Christmas Swing that I picked up at a five-and-dime sort of store back when I was in college, sung by a session singer from Nashville named Gail Farrell. That particular version is a beautifully sung Big Band version that’s not flashy at all. Like I always say, a good song is a good song no matter who performs it.

“Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” has a fascinating, practically bizarre history. In 2006, Chris Willman wrote an article in Entertainment Weekly that told the story:

There are two Christmas anthems locked in a struggle for the nation’s soul. One, the perennial leader, is the Nat King Cole-popularized ”The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire),” a glowing portrait of America in heavenly, secular peace. And then we have the challenger: ”Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” which this year leaped to No. 2 on ASCAP’s annual list of the most performed holiday songs. ”Chestnuts” has plenty going for it: embers, tots, reindeer, an assurance of everything in its right place, and that 1-to-92 target demographic. But it can’t hold a candle to the depth and richness of ”Merry Little Christmas,” which wins our hearts by celebrating a quality that’s even more intrinsic to the season: emotional ambivalence.

”’Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’ manages to be happy and sad at the same time, hopeful but full of melancholy, as all the best Christmas songs are,” says Bette Midler, who sings it on her new CD, Cool Yule. And the song’s fascinatingly tangled history has left it with several very different sets of lyrics, from the near-suicidal to the downright ebullient. There’s even a recent ”sacred” rewrite, ”Have Yourself a Blessed Little Christmas.” Which one you prefer may be the truest Rorschach test of your yuletide temperament.

Hugh Martin, the song’s 92-year-old writer, is calling from a California studio where he’s working on demos for a new musical. He’s curious to know who’s done ”Merry Little Christmas” well this year. Though the latest interpreters include Sarah McLachlan, James Taylor, and Aimee Mann, he’s most excited to learn that his song has finally merited a hair-metal cover. ”Twisted Sisters, is that the group’s name? Ha ha ha. That’s a hoot!”

Read the rest at Entertainment Weekly

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