It’s the Christmas season but Esther Smith’s heart is not filled with joy. Her father has announced that he’s being relocated to New York for his job and the family will be moving there. The move will separate Esther from John, the boy she loves.
Esther, played by Judy Garland in the 1944 film Meet Me in St. Louis, is the second of four daughters in the Smith family. The year is 1903. Esther’s brother and three sisters are unhappy about leaving behind their school friends and romantic partners. To make things worse, they will miss the greatly-anticipated world’s fair the following year.
On Christmas Eve, Esther soothes her little sister Tootie (Margaret O’Brien), singing to her Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas. The song has since become an inescapable part of the holiday background. The music-licensing company, ASCAP, once named it the third most-performed Christmas tune.
Judy Garland, her co-star Tom Drake and director Vincente Minnelli all thought the song as originally written was too depressing and so asked the lyricist Hugh Martin to make some changes. He came back with a more upbeat version. The line “It may be your last / Next year we may all be living in the past” became “Let your heart be light / Next year all our troubles will be out of sight.”
Thirteen years later, Frank Sinatra was recording a Christmas album, A Jolly Christmas. He went back to Martin asking him to “jolly up” the line “Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow.” The composer changed it to “Hang a shining star upon the highest bough.” This became the standard version. Later, Ms. Garland sang these revised lyrics on The Judy Garland Show Christmas Special.
The list of artists who have recorded this song is almost endless, usually with the “shining star” lyric. One, Chris Isaak, recorded both versions of that verse.
And the Smith family? When Mr. Smith realized how unhappy his family was, he changed his plans, cancelling the move to New York. They all got to go to the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair.