This was used in the film Meet Me In St. Louis. Judy Garland starred in the film and added some of the lyrics. At first, the words were very dark and she didn't feel comfortable singing them in the scene, so she helped change them to lighten the mood of the song. It was still a very melancholy song, and included the line, "Until then we'll have to muddle through somehow." In the 1950s Frank Sinatra wanted something more upbeat for his album A Jolly Christmas, so songwriter Hugh Martin changed that lyric to, "Hang a shining star upon the highest bough." This is the way it was usually sung from that point forward, making it a much more uplifting song.
The song was first published in 1943 with lyrics by Ralph Blane and music by Hugh Martin. The song brought comfort to many American soldiers who were fighting overseas during World War II.
One of the most popular versions of this song was recorded by the Carpenters and released in 1978 on their Christmas Portrait, the bittersweet lyrics falling right in Karen Carpenter's wheelhouse. The song was revived again in 1987 when The Pretenders contributed their version of the song to the 1987 charity album A Very Special Christmas, which featured many holiday classics recorded by some of the most popular artists of the time. These versions of the song by the Carpenters and The Pretenders are the ones that dominate airplay of the song, but other popular versions have been recorded by Michael Bublé, Luther Vandross, Christina Aguilera, Martina McBride, Little Big Town and Keyshia Cole.
James Taylor recorded his version using the original, more melancholy lyrics, shortly before September 11, 2001 and scheduled to be released the following spring. After the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, Taylor and his friends agreed to release the song prior to Christmas. Taylor's version with the original lyrics captured the appropriate mood for that Christmas season.
Sam Smith's 2014 version
of the ballad resulted in its first Hot 100 appearance. The previous best chart-placing had been Michael Buble's version, which peaked at #119 in 2011.
Frank Sinatra's version was used in the 2012 movie Silver Linings Playbook, starring Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence.
Mel Torme's version was used in the 1990 John Hughes comedy Home Alone, starring Macaulay Culkin.
In Meet Me In St. Louis, the Smith family is facing a move away from their beloved St. Louis to New York City, devastating daughters Esther (Garland) and Tootie (Margaret O'Brien). A sad scene, to be sure. So Hugh Martin sat down to write a sad song. Really sad:
Have yourself a merry little Christmas
It may be your last….
Faithful friends who were dear to us
Will be near to us no more.
"They said, 'It's so dreadfully sad,'" Martin recalled to Entertainment Weekly in 2007. "'I said, 'I thought the girls were supposed to be sad in that scene.' They said, 'Well, not that sad.' And Judy was saying, 'If I sing that to that sweet little Margaret O'Brien, they'll think I’m a monster!' And she was quite right, but it took me a long time to get over my pride. Finally, Tom Drake [the young male lead], who was a friend, convinced me. He said, 'You stupid son of a b---h! You're gonna foul up your life if you don't write another verse of that song!'"
"I'm surprised that our version is very popular at all," Chrissie Hynde
of the Pretenders told Entertainment Weekly
. "I was in a particularly melancholy mood, so I don't think ours is a cheerful version. Singing it upset me; I was on the verge of tears. I was thinking about relationships, and how things had changed, and the people that I couldn't see and couldn't be with. But maybe that [sadness] is what most people feel at Christmas, and maybe that's why people relate to it."
Linda Ronstadt's version from her 2000 album, A Merry Little Christmas, uses both the original "muddle through" lyric and updated "hang a shining star." Says Ronstadt: "'Muddle through' is what we do, but I love the bravado of 'hanging the shining star,' because it gets past the layers of anxiety to find that little beacon of hope and bravery."