All through this Christmas week, I’ve had one repeating thought: “Please, please, please let me not hear ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’ in a yoga class.”
I’ve been OK and not OK, if that makes sense.
Between Monday and Thursday, I wrapped up the last week of seeing nutrition clients before the holiday. I’ll be taking two weeks of rest from my private practice.
The practical purpose of this is for me to catch up on my other work and put some effort into promoting The Vegan Week.
Yet the more important impetus is for me to have some unstructured quiet time, so that I can show up fully for my clients in the new year.
With the exception of Covid and flu, I haven’t taken a week off since last Christmas, not even when I moved. Doing so was a hard decision for me to make, emotionally and financially.
But my therapist gave me the reminder that folks in the helping professions need to be diligent about their own self-care.
It’s not just a matter of being rested and well, she said. “You don’t want to hold or model the energy of a person who isn’t taking care of herself” was her advice, and she’s been at her work longer than I have mine.
It was good advice, and I’m following it.
Remember in college, when you’d drag your body through the string of all-nighters preceding finals week, somehow defying your own need for sleep or any hydration that didn’t involve coffee, then make it home for the winter break and immediately get sick?
That’s what I’d always do. It was as if my body knew to survive through that last test, and then in the safe space of home it would finally collapse.
I’ve been experiencing a bit of emotional collapse as I wrap things up before the holidays.
Each day this week, I got to the end of work. Then I’d sit on my new loveseat—part of the furnishings that I’m still trying to put together with time that I can’t seem to find—put my head in my hands, and start sobbing.
The past six months have given me moments of feeling joyously held and supported and connected. There have also been moments when I thought I would, as a friend of mine once put it, physically die of loneliness.
Some weeks, I’ve felt more self-assured and industrious in my work life than ever before. I’ve had moments of believing that I’m stepping into potential as a dietitian.
But there have also been weeks in which I felt wholly inadequate in all of my professional roles.
This past week, as the holidays approached, I was especially burnt out and empty. I told myself I was holding it together well enough, and maybe I was, but it wasn’t a great sign when a few yoga friends reached out, separately, with “just checking in” and “you haven’t seemed like yourself lately” texts.
In the meantime, my mom has been sick with the flu, and I’ve been worried about her. For a while we were hopeful she’d be better in time for our plans to go out to dinner on Christmas Eve.
By mid-week, though, it was clear that she wouldn’t be well enough. After the past two Covid Christmases, this was a disappointment for both of us.
So maybe you can understand why, as Christmas weekend approached, my only hope was to not hear any version of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” a song that makes me cry under jolly circumstances.
Not in a store, not on a TV show, not in an elevator, and especially not in a yoga class.
I managed to avoid it all through the week. Then yesterday, I went to a Christmas Eve yoga class at my beloved studio, and it happened.
As we were moving into savasana, my teacher played Cécile McLorin Salvant’s wonderful cover of the song from the Big Band Holidays album, and I lost it.
Fortunately, there’s strength in numbers, and I wasn’t the only person who had a good cry.
After class, a few of us got to talking about the song. Apparently, there’s an original set of lyrics, and then there are the lyrics that were popularized by Judy Garland’s famous rendition in Meet Me in St. Louis.
That McLorin Salvant cover is the original lyrics, which are, er, a little dark:
One of my yoga pals told me—because the owner of our yoga studio, a classic film buff, told her—that Judy Garland essentially refused to sing this version in the movie.
“Margaret will cry, and they’ll think I’m a monster,” Garland said.
Margaret O’Brian is the actress who played Tootie, the younger sister whom Garland’s character, Esther, is trying to console when she sings this tune.
Tootie is beside herself because she’s learned that the family is relocating from beloved St. Louis to big, bad New York City.
Hugh Martin, who cowrote the song with Ralph Blaine, was reluctant to change the lyrics, even as studio executives requested as much.
In a 2006 episode of Fresh Air, Martin, who passed away in 2011, recalled,
That version is the version that’s most familiar today, and it goes:
The irony is that Judy Garland’s performance in the movie is so poignant, so trembling and bittersweet, that the song pierces one’s heart with melancholy anyway.
Right after class, I got to thinking about my own melancholy. There was nothing wrong with it; it was real and true in that moment.
But there I was, in a cozy yoga studio strung with garlands of Christmas lights, surrounded by wonderful people, in the city that I give thanks for living in every single day.
I was practicing yoga with my tired, yet undoubtedly alive and vibrant, body.
My mom was recovering from the flu. And we would get to spend Christmas together. Compared to our respective Christmases of isolation last year (I got a positive Covid test on the 23rd, and isolation guidelines were more strict then), that’s a world of improvement.
“But at least we all will be together,” the song says, and it’s true.
As burnt out as I’ve been, it’s been a holiday season that’s rich in new friendships and cherished old ones, art and culture, good food and drink.
In the aforementioned interview, Martin described the original lyrics of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” as “lugubrious.”
Well, yeah. “Have yourself a merry little Christmas / It may be your last” is quite the opener.
But the lyrics have a certain maturity, an understanding of the tender precariousness of life, that the newer version lacks.
“Next year we may all be living in the past” can strike an ominous note. But there’s a lot of truth embedded in those words. How often do we all look back with nostalgia on a moment that we thought was pretty rough at the time?
Maybe we wouldn’t take back everything about that moment. Yet there’s almost always something we can remember with longing, or at least the appreciation that comes when something we couldn’t fully embrace in the present has faded into the past.
The lyrics aren’t all somber, either. There’s a sly sense of humor in there, too.
“Pop that champagne cork / Next year we may all be living in New York” is a reference to the Smith family’s possible uprooting. But it’s also a way of acknowledging the uncertainty that surrounds all of our lives and saying, “to heck with it, let’s celebrate.”
The encouragement to “have yourself a merry little Christmas now” is all about the “now” part. Don’t delay joy, the song is telling us.
One thing I’ll say about this past year: I haven’t been delaying the joy that’s accessible to me.
I spent much of my twenties and early thirties thinking about my future, and I spent the last five years stuck regretfully in my past. Right now it’s all about today, in ways that are both joyous and melancholy.
It’s good that I’m arranging a life that’s as full and fun and rich as it can be.
There’s also a heaviness in my heart when I grasp how uncertain my life feels or realize that I have no clue what my future will be—and little desire to think about it.
But this duality is what life is all about, which is another thing that Martin’s original lyrics capture.
Merry-making and sorrow, expansion and contraction, connection and going it alone: that’s life. Everything happens, and anything is possible.
In the world of Meet Me in St Louis, the possibility of living in New York is a sad outcome, so popping champagne is a way of celebrating what’s right here, right now.
I choose to read that line with a double layer of hope that the songwriters didn’t intend.
Yes, I’ll continue to pop my proverbial champagne, because who knows what tomorrow brings.
But since “next year we may all be living in New York” is, in the context of my life, a wonderful outcome—and the best thing that happened in 2022 is that I deepened my connection to the city—I’ll take that line as a reminder that the best may be yet to come.
I’ll hold that belief in my heart and pop some champagne in its honor, too.
I love you all. I’m thankful for you. And, whether you celebrate the holiday or not, I hope you’ll have yourself a merry little Christmas, if you know what I mean.
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Happy Christmas, Gena! Thank you again for showing up most weeks this year, for writing your truth as you see it, or at least as much of your truth as you feel able to tell of it.
I felt so much accord with this:
“Each day this week, I got to the end of work. Then I’d sit on my new loveseat—part of the furnishings that I’m still trying to put together with time that I can’t seem to find—put my head in my hands, and start sobbing.”
I often feel terrible shame for experiencing something very similar myself on a regular basis. I think the shame comes from the fact that so few people write about this particular kind of quotidian despair, this post-anorexia, decades-post-recovery, ongoing tussle with melancholy. It can be hard not to feel anything other than shame or fear when you don’t hear your own story reflected back to you, when it doesn’t appear in the common narrative.
But you do write that story, honestly and transparently. Please know that your writing and your life have meaning in their own right, and help others find meaning in their lives, too.
Love this! Thank you Gena. ❤️
Thank you for sharing! I hope you had a wonderful day.