It’s a cold and bright Christmas Day here in NYC. I hope you’re doing something you enjoy, with people you love. And maybe listening to (singing along with?) some good music. I’ll be here, doing my best Judy Garland impression, to the saddest happiest Christmas song, “Have Yourself A Merry Christmas.”
The song was released in 1944. Christopher Clausen has a nice piece from 2016 on the song’s reception. Along with “White Christmas,” another bittersweet Christmas song, it captured the hearts of American servicemen (and women!) abroad.
Claussen writes, “When [Bing] Crosby travelled overseas to entertain American troops, “White Christmas” was the song they most wanted to hear. According to a later interview, he developed reservations about performing it, not so much because he was tired of it as because it didn’t seem to cheer up his audiences. On the contrary, it depressed them. “I hesitated about doing it,” he recalled, “because invariably it caused such a nostalgic yearning among the men that it made them sad. Heaven knows I didn’t come that far to make them sad. For this reason, several times I tried to cut it out of the show, but these guys just hollered for it.” By the end of the war it was the bestselling single record of all time.”
In 2020, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” took on new layers of meaning. It has always been one of my favorite Christmas songs–not just because it is a beautiful song, but also because it was one of my mother’s favorites. And since her death, the song’s melancholy longing for togetherness gave form to deeply personal emotions. But in 2020, I began to understand what it might feel like for an entire society to be pulled apart–and experience that melancholy longing.
But I would never have predicted the events of 2022, or how a song written for a wartime America might have other resonances, other depths of meaning, in the middle of another long, cold wartime winter.
Some other (pop) Christmas favorites:
During my high school years, ICRT — Taipei’s English-language radio station — played Wham’s “Last Christmas” mercilessly.* It still brings back memories of the festive Christmas season in Taipei, and the hours I spent wandering around fancy department stores (the Shinkong Mitsukoshi was a favorite, as was the Zhongxiao Sogo, with its giant cuckoo clock).
In high school, my choir used to perform at all kinds of holiday functions (one of my favorite memories was performing at Filoli Gardens during the Christmas season). “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” was a fun, festive favorite.
Can’t forget the Queen of Christmas, even if her attempt to trademark the phrase fell flat.
And finally, Bing Crosby’s White Christmas
* From 1947 to 1979, ICRT, as the Armed Forces Network in Taiwan, served the U.S. military community in Taiwan. You can read more about the station’s history here, and the story is told in greater depth here.
** Bon Jovi’s “Silent Night” is not actually a Christmas carol.