My apartment on December 25, 2006, was a second story room in a converted motel on the edge of the Northwestern New Mexico desert. I had moved there a few months earlier, more than 3,000 miles from anyone I knew, to work as a copy editor for the local newspaper.
As I sat in the glow of my tiny fiber optic Christmas tree eating a turkey sandwich for dinner, the Christmas music station on my small CRT television began to play Martina McBride's rendition of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas."
"Through the years, we all will be together," Martina sang. "If the fates allow."
I was completely alone.
Things would get better for me, but Christmas 2006 was not a very holly jolly time. And in the grand scheme of things, I should consider myself lucky that loneliness and homesickness were the worst of my problems.
Sometimes Christmas sucks, but when it does, it's nice to have a bittersweet tune in your ear while you cry into your eggnog. "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" used to be one of the few classic holiday songs that met that description—before it was ruined, by Frank Sinatra.
The song, before Ol' Blue Eyes got to it, used to have more breathing room for yuletide misery. In the original version, as sung by Judy Garland in the film Meet Me in St. Louis, the final verse of the song goes like this:
Someday soon, we all will be together.
If the fates allow.
Until then, we'll have to muddle through, somehow.
Moments after hearing the song, Garland's younger sister runs outside and begins beating snowman and snowwoman versions of her family with a stick, which I think sums up how the holidays make us all feel sometimes.
It's one of the most powerful moments of the film. But almost every singer since the 1950s has sterilized the song so that it's completely devoid of any real emotion other than "Yay, Christmas":
Through the years, we all will be together.
If the fates allow.
Hang a shining star upon the highest bough.
The alteration of the lyrics does more than just change the meaning; it completely ruins the song. Instead of a message of hope for people going through dark times, the song's climax instead contains a Christmas decorating to-do list. Glad we got a reminder of what we're supposed to do with shining stars and boughs.
America didn't just lose something when those lyrics were changed. It was stolen, and the thief's name is Frank Sinatra.
I have never been a Sinatra fan. Please don't tell my 91-year-old grandmother, who once played hookey from Evander Childs High School in the Bronx to see him perform at The Paramount. His music has always struck me as too perfect, lacking in any edge to make it interesting. It makes sense that he would be responsible for marring the song.
In a 2007 interview with Entertainment Weekly, songwriter High Martin described changing the words at Sinatra's request for his 1957 Christmas album.
"He called to ask if I would rewrite the 'muddle through somehow' line," Martin told EW. "He said, ‘The name of my album is A Jolly Christmas. Do you think you could jolly up that line for me?”
And thus, the song was jollied. I don't know exactly why Sinatra's edit so fiercely steamrolled the original. Radio stations were probably more comfortable with the "shining star" version of the song, which kept listeners in a merry mood. And then there's the outsize cultural influence of Sinatra himself to consider.
Either way, renditions of the original are very rare. In 2012, The Awl compiled a list of 50 cover versions of the song, and which versions of the lyrics they used. Only six used the original muddle-based lyrics, with five refusing to take a side and using both.
Somewhere in the multiverse, there's an alternate reality where Sinatra did not demand the song be changed. In that world, there's less pressure to have a jolly Christmas, and everyone is a lot more relaxed, even if things are far from perfect.
But in our reality, life goes on and we continue to muddle through. Somehow.