What Judy Garland Gave You for Christmas

by Brian Arsenault

It’s on one of those Christmas song CDs I can’t find any more in a collection that is more like the bottom of an avalanche. Judy Garland singing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”

Not the version when the song was introduced in the 1944 film Meet Me in St. Louis. Judy is so young there that it hurts but the song is all pumped up movie musical overdone and schlock sentimental. Though even Hollywood couldn’t eliminate her true emotive strength.

No, I’m writing about a much later version when her voice has a rough edge from years of cigarettes and booze and, well, living. But oh so much real feeling. The listener hears and sees how much she wishes him, and her own children, “a merry little Christmas.” Not a big expensive one. But a dear little one.  Even in the grand setting of her Christmas TV special.

And it is so damn touching in a real way that most of the later recordings of the song miss. Even Sinatra’s doesn’t get it quite right. It’s in the meaning she brings to the lyrics with all the pained art of her singing.

The troubles of life aren’t gone, but maybe next year they’ll be “far away.” From now on, “out of sight.” Never gone, those troubles of life. Just put away maybe for a while for “a merry little Christmas” now. And “let your heart be light.”

I don’t know how often Judy’s heart was light in her too short life. The studio system of the day made her a star but extracted a terrible price. Sinatra said she died a little every time she sang. I know I’ve written that before but who the hell gives that much? I think she did.

So she could feel other people’s pain and know how much they yearn just for the load to be a bit lighter.

So many people struggle to pay for Christmas. Hell, the bills pile up most of the year. Yet somehow there’s a tree and gifts at least for the kids. And damn it, the rest can be shut out if only for a day or two or three days.

As far as I’m concerned, that’s who Judy sang the song for. She understood pain, disappointment, disillusion. But she wants you all to be merry. If only for a little while.

Quite a Christmas gift.

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To read more reviews, essays and columns by Brian Arsenault click HERE.

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