On December 16, 1944, the German Army threw 410,000 men into unsuspecting American lines in the Ardennes forest, achieving total surprise in a last-ditch effort to turn the tide of the war in Germany’s favor. By Christmas, the Germans had been reinforced with another forty thousand men, and the Battle of the Bulge was well on its way to becoming the second deadliest battle in American history. December 1944 was the most desperate Christmas for the United States since the aftermath of Pearl Harbor exactly three years before. Promise hung by a thread, especially for the young men freezing in the Ardennes forest, boys who wished for nothing more than hearth, home, a dose of hope.
Back in the United States, the star-studded musical Meet Me in St. Louis had just been released in movie theatres. The cast was filled with well-known Golden Age actors, but the central star was twenty-two year old Frances Gumm—better known to the world as Judy Garland—who’d first catapulted to fame a few years prior in The Wizard of Oz. MGM and Judy Garland both intended for Meet Me in St. Louis to be the instrument that transformed Garland from teen idol (she’d starred in several films alongside Mickey Rooney at that point) into mature star.
MGM hired red-hot songwriters Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane, who’d already worked on Girl Crazy and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, to write the book and score for Meet Me in St. Louis. The film’s central story involved sisters Esther and Tootie moving against their will from New York to Missouri over Christmas. In a key scene, young Tootie worries that Santa Claus won’t be able to find her in her new home. At the same time Esther, Judy Garland’s character, worries that the new-found love of her life will forget her when she moves away. Martin and Blane built the book around the number Garland would sing in that scene. They titled it “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” The songwriters wanted both the scene and the song to be tragic, and the emotions they intended the song to evoke were irony and pain. The song’s original opening lyric—no kidding—was, “Have yourself a merry little Christmas; it may be your last; next year we’ll be living in the past.”
Judy Garland was often underestimated. She’d spent months prior to filming Meet Me in St. Louis visiting American troops serving in Europe. She had seen first-hand the look in young men’s eyes, seeking hearth, home, and hope. And she knew the recording of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” would be shipped to soldiers at Christmas time—the very Christmas, it would soon turn out, when desperation was at its height in the Battle of the Bulge. Judy Garland knew that young American soldiers didn’t need more irony and pain. They needed a pause, a moment when the noise and fear could momentarily subside, and a note of promise would say to them, “This reality is temporary. You are not alone. Hope will prevail, and you will make it home.”
And so, in an era in which starlets were practically owned by the movie studios and did what they were told, Judy Garland refused to sing the song that had been written just for her, and the filming of Meet Me in St. Louis came to a screeching halt.
Our contemporary images of the Nativity can fool us. Even earlier today, when at 4 o’clock we watched our parish children perform the Nativity pageant in plush costume—including among the sheep a Christmas triceratops—we imagined the story with a “Precious Moments” gloss, with the shepherds scrubbed clean of desert grime, the animals doe-eyed and soft, and the warm light of the Eastern star blanketing the tableau with a gauzy glow. I wouldn’t ever want to give up those images, but it’s important for us to acknowledge that they are all pretend. Let’s rehearse the reality of the Nativity story.
Mary is pregnant at probably fourteen years of age. Joseph initially believes Mary has been unfaithful to him. He knows he is not the father. A distant Caesar demands that the Holy Family travel one hundred miles across a treacherous desert filled with bandits just so the emperor can tax them. They are pawns in Caesar’s chess game, and they have no choice but to move through danger in Mary’s pregnant state. When they arrive in Bethlehem, a town whose very name ironically means “house of bread” or “house of plenty,” everything is scarce. There isn’t even a room for Joseph to rent. And so, to keep his nearly bursting wife from exposure to the elements, Joseph agrees to bed down in a livery stall with animals. There is nothing doe-eyed about this scene. It is dark; it is dirty; it is fearful. I am a father, and I can imagine Joseph’s anxiety and desperation to keep Mary and their unborn child safe. I can also imagine that Mary’s fear, as the one who carries the child, is exponentially greater. Events are happening to them, and they need a pause, a moment when the noise and fear can momentarily subside, and a note of promise say to them, “This reality is temporary. You are not alone. Hope will prevail, and you will make it home.”
It is in that context, that moment of anxiety and fear, that Jesus is born, that the heavens open and the shepherds in the field are awestruck before the angel’s song, and that the very stars in the heavens indeed pause in wonder. It is in that moment that the words spoken by Julian of Norwich thirteen hundred years later must be heard in the stable stall: “All shall be well, all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” That is the promise birthed into the world along with the Incarnate God, the promise that from this moment on God is with us and we are not alone, that goodness and grace will, ultimately, prevail.
There is so much yet to come. Very soon, the Holy Family will be on the move again, this time fleeing murderous Herod and escaping as refugees to Egypt ever farther from home. Years after that, Jesus will begin his ministry, and Mary will plead with him to come home, fearing for both his mental health and his safety. And finally, Mary will stand at the foot of the cross, leaning on St. John for support, as her son suffers pain from which no parents can, ultimately, protect their children. All of these things have yet to happen, and they will happen. But on Christmas, there is a pause. The Christ child is born, and the birth is the promise of Emmanuel, that God is with us, and that nothing past and nothing yet to come will be able ultimately to thwart God’s victory. It is the promise that no matter what we face in this world, we face it alongside the God who is now incarnate in the world with us. The birth of the Christ child reveals that, in the end, all shall be well, all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.
We could do with such a pause, I think. In our world, and, for many of us, in our individual lives, there is plenty of anxiety, and noise, and uncertainty, and fear. We already know enough irony and pain. What we need is a note of hearth, and home, and hope on tonight of all nights. We need to know that we are not alone.
Twenty-two year old Judy Garland knew that the boys fighting in Europe, holding out desperately against the German Army at the Battle of the Bulge, needed these things. She would not yield to cajoling or threat, and she forced MGM to rewrite her signature song. She was right, and it worked. A movie show tune that otherwise would have been forgotten in the dust bin of the silver screen instead became, due to her courage and insistence, a timeless paean to hope. As author Ace Collins says, “When battle weary men in Europe and the Pacific heard it, they clung to the song as if their dreams were carried on each word and note.”[i] When soldiers heard the song, they could pause and be reminded that, no matter what, all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well. So…
Have yourself a merry little Christmas
Let your heart be light
From now on your troubles will be out of sight
Have yourself a merry little Christmas
Make the Yuletide gay
From now on your 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 now.
[i] Collins, Ace. Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas, 79.