Judy Garland changed iconic Christmas song after disliking 'very dark' lyrics

Darcy Rafter November 16, 2022
Judy Garland changed iconic Christmas song after disliking 'very dark' lyrics
Photo by FilmPublicityArchive/United Archives via Getty Images

To craft an iconic Christmas song all you need is some mulled wine, mistletoe, and of course, Judy Garland – as we can always rely on her to bring the festive vibes and Yuletide traditions.

Songwriters Hugh Martin and Ralph Blaine wrote the Christmas classic song Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas for Judy Garland’s 1944 movie, Meet Me in St. Louis.

Garland’s character Esther sings the song to Margaret O’Brien’s Tootie on Christmas eve as their family prepares to move from St. Louis to New York.

Since Garland’s debut of the song, it’s been covered by pretty much all the elites including Frank Sinatra, Michael Bublé, and Ella Fitzgerald.

For all the covers and various renditions of the song over the years, many don’t know that they are not singing the original lyrics…

Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Judy Garland changed the iconic Christmas song

Garland played a direct role in making the carol a long-lasting Christmas classic, as she demanded to change the blue lyrics to a more uplifting festive tone.

Hugh Martin revealed in a 2006 interview on Fresh Air that the original version of Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas, was so “lugubrious” that Judy Garland refused to sing it. Hugh recalls Judy saying: “‘If I sing that, little Margaret will cry and they’ll think I’m a monster.'”

The songwriter was rather stubborn and admits to being “young” and “arrogant.” So he told her: “that’s the way it is, and I don’t really want to write a new lyric.” However, Tom Drake, who played the boy next door in the film, took Martin aside and told him he would regret not completing the song. Martin then recalls taking Drake’s advice on board as he “went home and I wrote the version that’s in the movie.”

Garland disliked ‘very dark’ Christmas lyrics

Margaret O’Brien who starred in the film as Tootie Smith explained in an interview with Entertainment Weekly why the song had been changed. She recalls that it was “very dark at the beginning” and the original lyrics were, “Have yourself a Merry Little Christmas / It may be your last.”

O’Brien recalls that Garland “wanted it to be much lighter and more Christmasy” and her input into the song paid off as by the time they were doing the shoot, it was the “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” that we hear today.

Tootie’s portrayer acknowledges that the Christmas song is played every year: “There’s not a Christmas goes by you don’t hear “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas.” And a lot of that is due to Judy too for sticking up and saying it must be changed.”

The Christmas carol was nearly not released

In fact, the Christmas carol nearly didn’t make it to the lyric writing as Martin and Blaine recalled in a 1989 interview with NPR’s Terry Gross. The writers struggled to make the “madrigal-like tune” of the song come to fruition and Martin said in the end he “threw it in the wastebasket.”

After a couple of days, they picked it out of the dump and conjured up the first draft. Martin recalled that even the film producers said: “No, no — it’s a sad scene, but we want sort of an upbeat song, which will make it even sadder if she’s smiling through her tears.” So they went back to the drawing board once again.

Original lyrics to Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas

In the first draft of the carol, these were the lyrics:

“Have yourself a merry little Christmas / It may be your last / Next year we may all be living in the past / Have yourself a merry little Christmas / Pop that champagne cork / Next year we may all be living in New York… No good times like the olden days / Happy golden days of yore / Faithful friends who were dear to us / Will be near to us no more.”

This is how the song eventually turned out:

“Have yourself a merry little Christmas / Let your heart be light / Next year all our troubles will be out of sight / Have yourself a merry little Christmas / Make the yuletide gay / Next year all our troubles will be miles away”

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Darcy is an experienced journalist passionate about celebrity culture and entertainment. After gaining a degree in Media and Communications at Goldsmiths University she has also become a social media specialist, always keeping informed on the latest trends. With almost five years of experience in media, her expertise is analysing platforms such as Instagram, Twitter and TikTok. When she's not tracking the latest trending content, she’s watching films and eating lots of chocolate.