My favorite Christmas song written in anything like the modern era — after songs like Silent Night, I mean, Hark the Herald Angels Sing and Adeste Fidelis — is Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas. It was first introduced by Judy Garland in the 1944 film “Meet Me in St. Louis.” At first, Garland and her soon-to-be-husband, director Vincente Minelli, turned the song down because it was too depressing. Lyricist Hugh Martin made the necessary changes, but the song remains a sorrowful one. “Have yourself a merry little Christmas… next year all our troubles will be miles away… until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow.”
It was appropriate to the time. The world was at war. Many “faithful friends who are dear to us,” were themselves miles away, many in mortal danger. After the war, when Frank Sinatra recorded the best version of the song, the lyrics were reworked again. The “muddle through” line was ditched. “The name of my album is A Jolly Christmas,” Sinatra told Martin. “Do you think you could jolly up that line for me?”
But still, the song retains its wistfulness. That’s what I like so much about it. It has the feeling of a joy expected but out of reach.
That’s, of course, as appropriate to this year as it was to the year it was written — this awful year when so many have lost their jobs, lost their hope, and lost their lives while those of us who survive are so angry and divided we can barely tolerate our neighbor, let alone love him.
But more than that, a wistful sense of a joy expected but out of reach is really at the heart of every Christmas season, even in good times. “Joy,” C. S. Lewis once wrote, “is distinct not only from pleasure in general but even from aesthetic pleasure. It must have the stab, the pang, the inconsolable longing.”
The reason for this is that every consolation we seek in life — sex, love, beauty, money, pleasure, power — is only a poor representative of something beyond itself. Those who dedicate their lives to pursuing the symbol rather than the thing the symbol represents invariably end up disappointed — or worse.
In a 1990 column in the Village Voice — often quoted by preacher Tim Keller — Cynthia Heimel wrote of the misery of so many celebrities she had known in their youth, saying they “wanted fame. They worked, they pushed and the morning after each of them became famous they wanted to take an overdose. Because that giant thing they were striving for, that fame thing that was going to make everything OK, that was going to make their lives bearable, that was going to provide them with personal fulfillment and happiness had happened and they were still them.”
That thing we want — that thing the riches of the world can only represent — that thing that seems so near and yet so maddeningly out of reach — is the love of the God who made us in his image, the only real North Star of our life’s journey, the only true guidepost to becoming the person we were made to be.
On the first Christmas, that longed-for something broke the barrier and came onto our earthly plain. When we celebrate the day, we boldly declare our faith in the reality of that event and the truth of its meaning: God is truly there for us. We are not yearning in vain.
Maybe, in this year of anger and pain, when we all have to muddle through somehow, it would be good to remember that the people we disagree with most, the people we hate most, the people we want to throttle most are desperately yearning too, suffering too, and striving for a thing they can’t quite reach. And many of them may not have our hope, our Christmas faith.
Jesus did not tell us to love our enemies — or our neighbors for that matter — because he thought it would make them better people or the world a better place. He told us to do it, “so that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.”
To love like that is to taste in this vale of tears the vale beyond, the thing we long for. Because that is the reality that this reality can only half express: God loves you — the Left and the Right, the black and the white, the straight-laced and the freaky: his image every one.
So have yourself a merry little Christmas. Because that far-away joy is more real than all our troubles, more real than all the world.
The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.