From the Sabbatical Minister - December 5, 2019

In the Christian tradition, December 1-24 is the season of Advent – understood as a time for considering the coming – and the second coming – of the Christ; it ends on Christmas Day, with the words from the Book of Revelation, “joy to the world, the Lord is come.” 

But in the meantime – the month is filled with waiting: waiting for joy, waiting for hope, waiting for peace, waiting for love, waiting for the child, waiting for grace.

It is in this time of Advent that we take time – and fortunately, we have music libraries filled with holiday songs to make the waiting less difficult (sometimes filling us with nostalgia, sometimes bringing us cheer, and sometimes annoying us – I’m looking at you, “Little Drummer Boy”).  Over the next four weeks, I’ll be exploring the themes of Advent  through the lens of some of my most beloved and cherished holiday songs.

“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”

This is a beautiful song, written by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane for the movie musical Meet Me in St. Louis, and most famously sung by Judy Garland. We hear the song a lot, often with lyrics rewritten to be more cheerful; singer Frank Sinatra purportedly asked the songwriters “The name of my album is ‘A Jolly Christmas’; do think you could jolly up that line for me?”

Here are the lyrics we are most familiar with:

Have yourself a merry little Christmas

Let your heart be light
From now on our troubles will be out of sight

Have yourself a merry little Christmas
Make the Yuletide gay
From now on our troubles will be miles away

Here we are as in olden days
Happy golden days of yore
Faithful friends who are dear to us
Gather near to us once more

Through the years we all will be together
If the fates allow
Hang a shining star upon the highest bough
And have yourself a merry little Christmas now

In the original lyrics, the song is a bit grittier, and with good reason. The family in our story have just learned from their father that they’ll be moving from St. Louis to New York just after Christmas. The youngest child (played by Margaret O’Brien) is forlorn, and Esther (played by Garland) sings her a song of comfort.

In the original lyrics, we look forward with hopefulness:

Have yourself a merry little Christmas
Let your heart be light
NEXT YEAR ALL our troubles will be out of sight

And we accept the reality of the present moment:
Through the years we all will be together
if the fates allow

With those two original lyrics, we get to the heart of Advent’s message of hope. We know that things won’t always be the way they are, and we know that the meantime can be a mean time. But we also know that even if things will never be the same, there will be reasons to celebrate. Hope thrives when we accept what is true and look forward, when we open ourselves to the grace of the present moment and know that this struggle is not all there is.

For me, this song is a helpful reality check in the midst of the extraordinarily cheerful songs that seem so treacly or cloying. As we grow older – growing up to be adults, watching our children grow up, watching our lives change with the passing of each year – we can still find a way to hope for the light of family, friends, love, and comfort to return.

Advent points us toward hope – hope for relief, hope for positive changes, hope for the light to return, hope for our futures and the futures of those we love. And whether we have to muddle through or can celebrate, or some mixture of both, hope helps us see the grace all around us.

Watch the original scene from the film, with Garland and O’Brien, and have yourself a merry little Christmas:

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