December 24, 2020 - 7:00am

Last week, shortly before he gave us no choice, Boris Johnson urged us to have ourselves “a very little Christmas.” His words were, of course, a reference to Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, a song which I used to hate.

First sung by Judy Garland, it’s been covered countless times — mostly in syrup. I blame Frank Sinatra, whose schmaltzy 1957 version smothered the essential sadness of the melody and lyrics. Indeed, he had the words rewritten. Thus “next year all our troubles will be out of sight” became “from now on, our troubles will be out of sight”.

This year, the older version seems more appropriate. That includes the bit about having “to muddle through somehow”. This was changed to “hang a shining star upon the highest bough”: a lovely line, though not as good a description of government policy.

I say that Garland sung an “older” version because it’s not quite the oldest. You can read the original lyrics, here — which, as you’ll see, did not pull their punches. Take the opening lines, for instance: “Have yourself a merry little Christmas / It may be your last.”

If you think that’s morbid, then the context really won’t help. The song was written for the 1944 musical film Meet Me in St. Louis — and is sung by Garland’s character in an attempt to console her little sister. ‘Cheer up, kiddo: you could be dead soon!’

At Garland’s prompting, the melancholy was dialled down — but, crucially, not all the way to zero. Christmas is, after all, a festival of light amid the darkness. Even the ‘merry’ in ‘merry Christmas’ carries an intimation of mortality. It is derived from an ancient Germanic word meaning ‘short-lasting’ — appropriate for (what was) the shortest day of the year and the brief respite before the coldest part of winter.

I should mention something else that was lost from the lyrics. In both the Garland and Sinatra versions the hope that “we will all be together” is followed by the caveat “if the fates allow”. In the original, however, it was “if the Lord allows”.

It’s unclear quite why this was changed. 1944 seems rather early to be taking the Christ out of Christmas. Then again, secular modernity is nothing new. Whatever the reason, without faith, the surrounding darkness is harder to bear.  Which is why we try to push it away.

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.