I remember being little, feeling excited enough about Christmas to collapse in fits of ecstasy at the thought of the delights swiftly approaching: presents, special food, family from out of town. Snow.
When did Christmas become more complicated than that? I imagine we each have our own reasons for feeling ambivalence or even dread about the holiday season, whatever holiday we might be observing. I have vague memories of my dad and his siblings bickering, old tensions simmering in the pressure cooker of the family gathering; teenage memories of my sister resenting every minute she had to spend in the house with relatives instead of out with friends; memories of missing my mom when I was with my dad, and then missing my dad when I was with my mom. Of pushing through old traditions even though they weren’t fun anymore because things weren’t the same as they used to be.
Whatever the cause, that gap between what we want the holidays to be and what they actually are can be profoundly sad-making. For all the knowledge that we are lucky to be alive and to have certain advantages and comforts, times like Christmas can be hard for anyone who’s not right in the middle of the exact life they want to be living.
Of course, 2016 is a special case. Personal challenges have given way to a sense of national crisis in some circles. Many are confronting the devastating realization that America isn’t what they’d thought it was, and that they were enjoying a kind of blind privilege to have believed otherwise. Those with fewer illusions now see that the arc of the moral universe is going to be even longer and uglier than they’d expected. Others are on the defensive, struggling to reconcile their voting records with the increasingly clear, dark reality of their President-elect’s intentions. This year, many holiday gatherings will seat these varying perspectives around the very same table. And even those tables united by points of view, though they might be spared the sharpest conflict, will gather under a darkened sky.
The holidays, never more so than in 2016, tend to throw into stark relief the idea that life isn’t always working out as we assumed it would back when we were children, no matter how blessed we’ve been in the grand scheme of things.
Meet Me In St. Louis charts a year in the life of the Smiths, one such blessed family in turn-of-the-century Missouri, the year preceding the town’s World’s Fair. The title song, originally written in 1904 to promote the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, flits through the opening scenes as the Smith family go about their day. Younger sister Agnes (Joan Carroll) sings it trudging up the stairs to change for dinner. Grandpa (Harry Davenport) picks it up as he putters about in his bedroom. Teenage sisters Esther (Judy Garland) and Rose (Lucille Bremer) kick it up a notch, harmonizing with Rose playing piano and Esther dancing in her petticoat and dressing gown. Mother Anna (Mary Astor) and devoted housekeeper Katie (Marjorie Main) make ketchup in the kitchen; everyone schemes to rush Father Alonzo (Leon Ames) through dinner so Rose can have the dining room to herself for a romantic long-distance telephone call. Baby sister Tootie (Margaret O’Brien), after a day presumably spent causing mischief around town, hitches a ride home on the ice wagon.
The Smiths are living a life of privilege, and not only because they have a big house, financial stability, and a protected seat at the American table. They are all together, healthy, vital, optimistic. Their existence is serene. Life is full of promise, with three children about to enter adulthood, two younger ones tumbling through childhood with vigor, and their hometown about to become “the center of the universe.” Traditions root them deeply in their world, and anticipation of the future keeps them active. Their days are filled with the types of trivial activities and pursuits that you realize are precious precisely when you don’t have them anymore. The Smiths sparkle with personality as they chase their individual little dreams. The house glows.
About halfway through the movie, Father announces that he has received a promotion and will relocate the entire family to New York City before the new year. His proclamation is met with unanimous angst, from Grandpa on down to Tootie. Mother, however, eventually leads the family to fall in line behind Father and his unpopular decision: she plays a sweet old song called “You and I” on the piano; he sings; she joins in; the rest of the family circles around them and watches silently, sharing cake and effectively conceding the point. It’s a scene that communicates something profound about long-time love and family loyalty. But the Smith clan now has a weight on its back.
It’s easy to dismiss the Smiths’ dilemma as a fortunate one. Easy to label Esther a spoiled brat, for instance, because she puts up such a fuss about leaving St. Louis, her high school, and her “Boy Next Door” love John Truett (Tom Drake). The world knows bigger problems, of course, but our feelings about family and home are never simple or trivial. By this point in the film, moments of real beauty and wonder have made a good case for the family’s beloved St. Louis against the unknown New York. The Smiths aren’t mourning their big house or myriad other material advantages, they’re mourning Home.
The film is populated with a combination of period-specific ditties and songs written for the film, mostly for Judy Garland, like “The Boy Next Door,” “The Trolley Song,” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” Most of the pre-existing songs are presented as if the characters already know them, and have known them for years. Esther and Tootie do a rehearsed routine to “Under the Bamboo Tree” at big brother Lon’s going away party. Esther sings “Over the Bannister” to John alone after the party, when he tells her she reminds him of that song. This episode, in which Esther steals some time with John by asking him to accompany her around the house as she dims all the lights, is particularly lovely: The ritual of turning off each tiny light in the big, well-known house, each room requiring a different tool or process to darken it; the quiet sharing of that household ritual with a new love; two young people tenderly playing the roles of an old married couple shutting down the house after a party. Vincente Minnelli, who began his career designing windows at Marshall Field’s, was a director obsessed with visual details. He takes full advantage of scenes like this one. Each dying light offers a new, gorgeous shift in perspective. In her last, initially reluctant turn at playing a teenager, Judy Garland is at her most radiant; John Truett doesn’t stand a chance.
It is in the midst of small but life-altering moments like this that Father drops his New York bombshell. Tootie has just had a particularly victorious Halloween evening after “killing” the scariest man in town. (In 1903 St. Louis, Halloween festivities apparently involved children throwing furniture into giant bonfires and stalking the neighborhood, knocking on doors and throwing wet flour into the faces of whoever answered, thus “killing” them.) Esther’s relationship with John is progressing. Rose is still in search of marriage proposals. The World’s Fair looms alluringly. We, the audience, are invested. We don’t want the Smiths to move either. For once, the grass is greener in our yard.
Still, Christmas Eve arrives and the moving date nears. The house is packed up. The older Smith children go to the Christmas ball. John proposes to Esther, but their understanding is left ambiguous, her family’s impending move complicating their young hopes. When Esther gets home late that night, she finds Tootie sitting at the bedroom window, looking out onto the snow people they made together earlier in the day. They talk about leaving St. Louis. Esther makes light of things, joking and wrapping Tootie in the winter coat she has just taken off herself. But Tootie remains deflated, blue. Esther makes one last effort at comforting her five-year-old sister with a song from a nearby music box.
If you haven’t heard Judy Garland singing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” then you’ve never truly heard the song. As it turns out, it’s one of the saddest in the world. It was originally written for Meet Me In St. Louis, but the lyrics were later altered to make it happier—we have Frank Sinatra’s A Jolly Christmas to thank for that.
The version Esther sings to Tootie is about putting on a brave face, hoping next year will be better than the current one. In the context of the film—made in 1944 as WWII raged on—it’s a relevant message. Like “Over the Rainbow,” this rendition also seems a little haunted by the knowledge of Judy Garland’s own troubles. As far as the scene goes, self-pity is uninteresting; determined hope in the face of hardship is always much more affecting. So Esther, putting aside her own worries about the future to pull her little sister out of the muck, is a potent mix.
Have yourself a merry little Christmas.
Let your heart be light.
Next year all our troubles will be out of sight.
Have yourself a merry little Christmas.
Make the yuletide gay.
Next year all our troubles will be miles away.
Once again, as in olden days, happy golden days of yore,
Faithful friends who are dear to us will be near to us once more.
Someday soon we all will be together, if the fates allow.
Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow.
So have yourself a merry little Christmas now.
The better-known lyrics paint a picture of a contented Christmas now, as well as an assuredly blessed Christmas future. Instead of looking forward with hope to “next year,” we assure ourselves that “from now on our troubles will be out of sight/miles away.” We’re home free. While the original version wistfully asserts that in the future, “once again, as in olden days,” faithful friends “will be near to us once more,” the updated version simply states that hey, our faithful friends are here right now, again.
Most jarringly self-congratulatory is the final stanza, the second line of which hilariously illustrates the essential difference between the personas of Judy Garland and Frank Sinatra:
Through the years we all will be together if the fates allow.
Hang a shining star upon the highest bow.
And have yourself a merry little Christmas now.
Pardon me if I take too much meaning from these two versions of the same song. Perhaps it’s my own longtime ambivalence about Christmas that makes me appreciate an honest acknowledgment of the gap between perfection and reality. I’ll take yearning, grappling, and melancholy over complacent rhetoric any day. But then again, I grew up with Judy Garland’s voice in my heart. Tootie, caretaker of terminally ill dolls, aficionado of morbidity, doesn’t buy Esther’s stiff upper lip. She tears down to the backyard in her nightgown and starts sobbingly smashing up the snow people with a stick. This isn’t a totally alien impulse. She’d rather obliterate any remaining vestige of home, of the traditions she’s known and the love she’s experienced, if she can’t stay and keep experiencing it without condition. Sell the house, donate the toys, dispense with the turkey dinner—find something new and utterly different instead of pretending everything’s okay. Who’s with her?
WWII and the gorgeous darkness of Judy Garland aside, Meet Me In St. Louis is, after all, an MGM musical. Suffice it to say the Smiths do get to see the Louisiana Purchase Exposition. Father sees Esther pleading with inconsolable Tootie in the backyard, lights a meditative cigarette, and proceeds to wake the whole house to tell them he’s changed his mind; they’re staying in St. Louis. It’s a scene that seems like a Shakespeare-comedy-clean ending, but also present is the deeper fact that this turn-of-the-century American male somehow senses that his action might forever damage the DNA of his family. And he chooses to change course. Can you imagine? Mother separates herself from the celebrating family to stand quietly among the packing boxes, tears shining in her eyes. Her husband notices and crosses the room to embrace her.
Growing up with Meet Me In St. Louis, I wasn’t sure who I most identified with. Maybe Esther. But revisiting it now, as this wretched year draws to a close, as I nurse my heart and summon what resources I possess to face a challenging future, I am 100 percent Tootie.
It’s late at night, and I am sitting at the upstairs window of my childhood home, on the last night it will be mine, looking down onto the yard, weeping. I am refusing all comfort, rejecting any soothing ideas, dismissing them as empty. I am breaking away, running down the stairs, outside of the warm house into the winter night in my flimsy nightgown. I am descending with fury upon the snow people my family and I made when the sun was still out. I am swinging recklessly, crying, yelling incoherently, frightening and glorious in my grief, my anger, my resolve. In this moment, I am both woman and child. My certainty about the injustice I see before me is absolute.
Christmas and America. The truth is, they were only ever easy when I knew too little of the story. Before I ever imagined what it must have cost my parents to spend holidays together after their divorce. Before I had seen so many wrongs occur in my country. Before I had any inkling of how much I still don’t know and will never understand. Before my concept of hope became necessarily laced with grim determination.
Tootie and I are both mourning a future we had hoped for—hers involved continued wealth and privilege and lots of slightly-too-dangerous pranks; mine was more along the lines of believing that our imperfect world was moving slowly but surely toward justice. We differ, though, in that I’m no longer looking to my father, the White American Male, safe inside in his smoking jacket and mustache, to realize he fucked it up for all of us, to put out his cigarette and somehow take everything back. I know that won’t happen. He won’t make it right.