So we got our tree up. Merry Christmas. While we were decorating, we had KQQL 107.9 in the twin cities blaring carols on the radio. It brought some ideas forth.
I have always loved Christmas music. Though I tend to skew toward the secular carols, I once performed O Holy Night for the assembled congregation of the Lutheran church in which I grew up, so I can hold my own with the Christchild, too. When I was small my parents had what had to be the oldest stereo system in the western hemisphere hooked up in the living room above the fireplace. The amazing thing was that it had better sound than any Bose radio on the shelves today - it just didn't have any components: just a tuner and a turntable. As such, my knowledge of Yuletide cheer was informed solely by Kenny Rogers' Christmas albums and a Time/Life collection of holiday classics on vinyl (I think the cover had some kind of Currier & Ives-ish, sleigh ride print on it). But man, when Perry Como tells you there's no place like home for the holidays, and you've got a fire going in the fireplace and you've never known a holiday away from your own family, damnit you believe him.
So now I'm older. I've noticed a happy trend in new recordings of old classics, and it distresses me. I do not have the gravitation toward fun carols that I once had. "Up on the Housetop" and "Here Comes Santa Claus" no longer hold the magic they once did. These days what I really want to hear is "Happy Christmas." The wholesome "Chestnuts roasting on an open fire" has given way to the realistic "I've grown a little leaner, grown a little colder, grown a little sadder, grown a little older," and I do need a little Christmas now.
Here's an example I've been thinking about lately: In 1943 Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane wrote a song for the Judy Garland vehicle, Meet Me in St. Louis, and they gave it decidedly dark lyrics. More than just dark, though, they were topical to the plot - "next year we may all be living in New York." There was no way it would ever do anything but exposit storyline for this single movie and depress the viewers of the film. Luckily, they changed it slightly to be less ominous, and in the process made Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas a universal sentiment of the holiday season for anyone who's ever had an extended family.
The song took an unfortunate turn in 1957 when Frank Sinatra was cutting an album called A Jolly Christmas. Why he felt the need to include this beautifully melancholy song in any kind of Jolly compilation is beyond me, but he approached Martin with a request to "happy up" the song. That is when it received the loathsome anti-climactic lyric it is best known for today: "Through the years we all will be together, if the fates allow. Hang a shining star upon the highest bough." This is a Hollywood ending for what was never meant (despite it's cinematic beginnings) to be a happy-ending song. The first rewrite, and the one I know from my Time/Life childhood Yule dreams is this: "Through the years we all will be together, if the fates allow. Until then we'll have to muddle through somehow." As someone who has family in three different states, and who sees the people with whom I was raised and with whom I came of age maybe once a year, this lyric speaks to me on a very deep level. In this version, there is no guaranteed reuniting "in a year" or "on Christmas Day" - we just know we're all getting by and god-willing we'll all get together soon to sit with one another and pretend it hasn't been that hard after all. It is what the Holiday season is about - hope for tomorrow's reunions, and resolve to keep a fire going in that ancient hearth beneath the old stereo, just in case someone graces my threshold bearing Yuletide cheer. I don't know if I'll be in a position to host guests in a year, but for the love of god, if you people show up at my door we will be together, and that is what matters. Until then, I'm happy to muddle through as best as I can. So Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas Now.