By Daniel van Voorhis –
It was 1957. Ike was in office and Leave It to Beaver premiered on CBS. These were the peak years of the Baby Boom and America was the world’s sole superpower. We had Happy Days style swagger and American Bandstand. We were exceedingly “religious” (we had just added “In God We Trust” to our currency and “Under God” had recently been added to the pledge of allegiance). In the late ‘50s more money (adjusted for inflation) was spent on churches than in American history, and church attendance had never been higher.
We were building houses and churches and bombs with a little extra world superpower hubris. This was the year of Elvis and Sinatra.
Sinatra didn’t want you muddling.
Sinatra had his first bona fide hit album with “A Swingin’ Affair” and decided to strike while the iron was hot and record the Christmas album, “A Jolly Christmas from Frank Sinatra”, to keep his mojo going.
His producer was not the cool-headed (and real genius behind Sinatra) Nelson Riddle, but rather his accomplished, but less demanding producer, Gordon Jenkins. And Jenkins let Sinatra call the shots. When it came to recording “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” Sinatra refused to sing “until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow”. It wasn’t up tempo. It was a bummer. Ol’ Blue Eyes called the song’s lyricist, Hugh Martin, and asked for a rewrite. “Make it snappy,” he barked.
The song was made famous by Judy Garland in “Meet Me in St. Louis,” and the song was written for the somber moment between Garland and her little sister as they reflected on moving and having to leave their friends and family. Martin capitulated and changed the lyric to “hang a shining star upon the highest bough”. Jenkins gave it an up-tempo swing and Sinatra swung it. With some notable exceptions, this song has been sung in the style Sinatra set and the old lyrics are referenced. (And even when Ella Fitzgerald sang both lyrics, the tempo is so damn happy you’re likely to ignore the reminder of an occasional muddle and keep tapping your toes.)
The song was originally a melancholy, but hopeful ballad about the realities of hardships in spite of the joy of the Christmas season. We can still have stockings and trees and jingle bells, but we also have to remember that every year, and every Christmas, won’t be a trouble-free season of unfettered saccharine glee.
Please remember, I am your ambassador of Christmas cheer. My articles the past few weeks still stand, and I am writing this article sitting in the jolliest house on the block (with blow up Santa and Reindeer on the front lawn and a tree in the window with the shiniest star upon the highest bough).
But sometimes, we have to muddle. Christmas may or may not be a time of increased depression and suicides, but tension and stress can leave us a little confused. The first lines spoken in A Charlie Brown Christmas are my favorite:
Charlie Brown: I think there must be something wrong with me, Linus. Christmas is coming, but I’m not happy. I don’t feel the way I’m supposed to feel. I just don’t understand Christmas, I guess. I like getting presents and sending Christmas cards and decorating trees and all that, but I’m still not happy. I always end up feeling depressed.
Linus: Charlie Brown, you’re the only person I know who can take a wonderful season like Christmas and turn it into a problem. Maybe Lucy’s right. Of all the Charlie Browns in the world, you’re the Charlie Browniest.
My own financial issues don’t go away at Christmas; in fact, they can be exacerbated by normal holiday expenses (including my electricity bill). I love seeing the cheer on my boys’ faces as they see Santa and open Advent calendars, but they will likely get greedy and fight when I’m trying to enjoy my 4th viewing of It’s a Wonderful Life. They might complain about what they don’t get. And then, like most of us, our families extend beyond our house and we get to soak in some of the drama and chaos inevitably collected throughout the years.
What’s your issue? Travel? Crowds? Office parties? Extra busy work seasons? You’ll probably have some of this made worse by the happiest time of the year.
But, if you aren’t a complete scrooge (or an aloof contrarian), you think of Christmas memories and look forward to your own traditions and might even revel in some of the chaos.
So, “fa-la-la” all the way home. Eat some extra processed sugar and hang a star (of whatever brightness) on the bough of your choice. But it’s ok to muddle. I think part of the genius of Christmas music is the right balance of hope and melancholy and sentiment and pure sing-a-long fun.
Next week I am going to be ranking the Christmas songs in each category (Sacred, Traditional, and Pop) and noting the best and worst versions. I’ll let you know ahead of time that Mel Torme’s “Sleigh Ride” and Springsteen’s “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” and almost all of Phil Spector’s compilation “A Christmas Present to You” are on the nice list while Bob Geldof and Band Aid, along with most every song on the “A Very Special Christmas” pop compilations are on my naughty list.
But in the meantime, may I suggest you let “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” be a track that allows you to acknowledge that which might have you feeling a little melancholy. Muddle through with artist that gives it the appropriate melancholy tone (even if the artist has taken away the proper line). Let me suggest the original Judy Garland version from Meet Me in St. Louis and Mel Torme’s version (despite the changed lyric). For a modern twist, James Taylor recorded it with the original lyrics and with the original tone on his album recorded in the aftermath of 9/11. And despite the lyric swap, Cat Power’s version is my favorite modern rendition.
Part of the true joy of Christmas is the hope and muddle. We acknowledge our need to get by despite the rougher edges of harsh reality. This is the season of great contradiction: enjoyment and awkwardness at parties, the joy of gift giving and the reality of bank balances, it is darker and colder but we might somehow be filled with more love and light. Whatever you make of it, go ahead and muddle through those parts that get you down and sing like these guys when you get the chance.
All the Best,
The Man About Town
Written while listening to A Christmas Playlist of Melancholy Christmas music (the current track is Calexico: Gift X-Change).