COVID Christmas 2020 echoes 1944, when a bleak Judy Garland song captured the wartime mood

Ross K. Baker, Opinion columnist

Radio stations that feature Christmas songs at this time of year will play — many times and by many different artists — a song from a popular film that premiered in 1944. “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” was sung by Judy Garland in the movie “Meet Me in St. Louis,” about a family forced to move from their beloved home in St. Louis by their father’s transfer to New York. Judy Garland sings the song to her younger sister, played by Margaret O’Brien, to comfort her about the impending move.

Unlike most Christmas songs that are cheery but emotionally shallow, this song captures the pain and sacrifice so many American families were enduring in that dreadful winter more than seven decades ago — although the war itself is not mentioned. It is a song uniquely suited to Christmas 2020, overshadowed like Christmas 1944 by death and grief and uncertainty.

As we entered the new year of 2020 with anticipation and hope, so did the Americans of 1944 watching the triumph of the Allied armies in Western France and the headlong retreat of the German army to the safety of the heavily fortified Siegfried line on the French-German border. One could almost give credence to the hopeful boast of some soldiers that they would be home by Christmas.

The original lyrics were not so cheery

That hope was dashed by the Battle of the Bulge, which was fought just about the time U.S. audiences were seeing “Meet Me in St. Louis” in neighborhood theaters throughout the country. With American forces in disarray and final victory an iridescent dream, families saw a film about separation, loss and dashed hopes.

The words of the song that Judy Garland sang, as she and Margaret O’Brien gazed wistfully out of the second-floor window of the home they would soon be forced to leave, poignantly expressed the feelings of Americans in darkened theaters: “Someday soon we all will be together, if the fates allow. Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow, so have yourself a merry little Christmas now.”

Poster art of Margaret O'Brien and Judy Garland for "Meet Me in St. Louis," one of the movies featured in technicolor on TCM in 1998.
Poster art of Margaret O'Brien and Judy Garland for "Meet Me in St. Louis," one of the movies featured in technicolor on TCM in 1998.

You have probably listened to this song many times but heard the bowdlerized version of the lyrics that was substituted for the original by performers who did not want to sing somber songs about muddling through. Judy Garland implored the lyricists Hugh Martin and Ralph Blaine to make the lines more upbeat.

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The two songwriters had already altered the lyrics once before from an even bleaker version (“Have yourself a merry little Christmas, it may be your last. Next year we may all be living in the past”) and preferred not to further tamper with them. Ultimately, a number of artists scrapped the muddling clause and replaced it with the sunnier “hang a shining star upon the highest bough” — thereby stripping the song of its poignancy.

'Endurance will bring us closer'

The attitude of the American people at the end of 1944 was not unlike the outlook of many people during this pandemic. They were fed up with three years of war and interpreted the success of the Allied armies in the summer and fall as a signal to return to the prewar normal.

An editorial in the Jan. 8, 1945, edition of Life magazine described the conditions in terms very similar to those in pre-pandemic America: “1944 for civilians was pretty much of a lark. We made more money, spent more, ate better and lived higher than in any year in our history. ... In a mad rush of Christmas buying we reduced department store inventories to almost nothing (but) this is the year of the showdown and we can no longer trust to luck.”

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On an even more somber note about what lay ahead for Americans, the magazine wrote, “Much food and drink and money are pleasant; but when the death toll mounts, their irony becomes a spiritual burden.” The editorial ends with a word of advice: “Let us welcome the chance to be constant in enduring hardship and fatigue for our soldiers’ sakes, as they endure for ours. Courage is inspiring, but endurance will bring us closer together.”

The writers of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” probably had the same thought in mind when they wrote the lines, “Someday soon we all will be together, if the fates allow. Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow." Those words from long ago, about the importance of persistence, fortitude and endurance, are especially relevant as we await victory over another implacable enemy that will not give up easily.

Ross K. Baker is a distinguished professor of political science at Rutgers University and a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors. Follow him on Twitter: @Rosbake1

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Have yourself a merry little Christmas, from 1944 war to 2020 pandemic