The Highest Bough

There are few things in this life that are as annoying as Christmas music. It’s difficult not to be a Scrooge when radio stations convert to an all Christmas format as early as October. Have a Holly, Jolly Christmas and Ho, Ho, the Mistletoe are annoying enough the first time you hear them; by the seven hundredth time, a clear alibi for murder would be accepted by any rational court.

Despite the plethora of annoying melodies and jingles and jangles, there have been a handful of great songs inspired by the season.  These songs find real and heartfelt sentiment in the season’s unabashed sentimentality, and walk the tightrope of emotional honesty without a net, never falling to the pit of sappiness most holiday songs never rise above.  So it is I present my (drumroll, please – and please, no Little Drummer Boy) three favorite Christmas songs.

The first is Silver Bells, written by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans in 1950. Silver Bells was my mom’s favorite Christmas song.  With its lovely melody and phrasing, it paints an incredibly romantic view of “Christmas time in the city.”  Given that my mom was from a very small town in northwestern Wisconsin, it might seem like an odd choice for her favorite, until you remember that when she was in her early twenties, about the time the song first came out, she and a group of close friends lived and worked in Milwaukee.  Every time I hear the song I think about her, and how much I wish I’d asked her what images and memories the song conjured up for  her.

The second is I’ll be Home for Christmas, written in 1943 by Walter Kent and Kim Gannon and recorded first by Bing Crosby. Written as a tribute to servicemen stationed overseas and their families at home, the song touched an emotional nerve and quickly became a Christmas standard in the United States. Despite this, in Great Britain the song was banned from the airwaves, due to fears that the lyric “I’ll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams” was too depressing and would destroy morale. It’s the evocation of “home,” one of the most powerful words in the English language, and its association with Christmas that makes the song so powerful.

My favorite Christmas song is Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas, written by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blaine for the 1944 film, Meet Me in St, Louis, where it was sung by Judy Garland.  In the film, Garland’s five year old sister, played by Margaret O’Brien, is despondent because their father has just taken a new job in New York City.  It’s Christmas Eve, and Garland sings the song to O’Brien to cheer her up. The lyrics, which are perfection, didn’t start out that way. Garland criticized the song as depressing, and asked Martin to change lines like:

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.

Although he initially resisted, Martin re-wrote some of the lyrics, and the song soon became a standard. Like I’ll be Home for Christmas, it resonated with families separated from loved ones by the war.

What chokes me up every time I hear the song is its fatalistic view of the passing of time. Even as it celebrates the years “we all will be together,” it remains conscious of the temporal nature of time and the inevitability of separation with the devastating line, “if the fates allow.”  The optimistic sentiment expressed in the song (“from now on our troubles will be” either “out of sight” or “miles away”) can’t hide the fact that troubles are with us now.

The fatalism expressed in the song could be considered depressing, but I find it real and touching.  Unlike most popular songs, it not only acknowledges the inevitability of trouble and separation, but it serves as a touching and beautiful appreciation for how wonderful friends and family are, and how brief and precious our time with them is.

With a gorgeously heartbreaking melody and poignant lyrics Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas is both a work of art and an evocation of the very real emotional pull Christmas exerts on us all.

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 right now


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