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Editor’s note: In this month’s Economic Insight column the author shares a holiday message of hope.
Judy Garland touched many people during her Hollywood career. Perhaps no performance of hers has been as enduring and meaningful as her 1944 rendition of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”
I love the song, in part, because of its history of inspiring troops during World War II. I also love its message of resilience and hope. We all face challenges, but hope prevails.
Those of you familiar with the song will remember that the lyrics have been revised over the years to make the song more hopeful. I figured this out when I first heard James Taylor’s 2002 rendition of the song. He chose to sing the original lyrics. In the fourth stanza, instead of singing the more familiar line of “Hang a shining star upon the highest bow,” Taylor sang the original: “Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow.”
While definitely a more somber message, I like the original version. “Muddle” is what many of us do most of the time, even as we create and experience moments of brilliance. Life’s not all a crescendo. Many times in life are just plain flat, ordinary or hard. We take what life gives us and work it out. We find a way to keep hope alive.
The holiday season is no different. We muddle a bit, even as we experience moments of joy. The holidays often serve as a catalyst for greater hope in our lives. This happened in my family.
My 92-year-old mother tells a Christmas story about her immediate family’s struggle with the death of her sister when she was just 16 years old. She had contracted pneumonia before the discovery of penicillin and developed a bronchial cough that never went away. They experienced the heart wrenching pain of burying a teenager who would have had a bright future.
Nobody felt this pain more than my grandmother. She had outlived her daughter and her heart ached.
My grandmother had a lovely contralto voice. She loved to sing and would frequently team up with my grandfather, who had a high tenor voice, and entertain the family with a lovely duet in two-part harmony. Unfortunately, after their daughter died my grandmother stopped singing. She had lost her joyful spirit and with it her motivation to sing. Her sadness had taken her song.
My mother tells the story of going to church services for months and observing how my grandmother would remain silent during the songs. This is significant because in our faith tradition, singing is a form of worship. My grandmother loved God, but lacked the emotional strength to sing.
But then Christmas season came. My grandfather sought to bring a semblance of joy back into the home. He placed a small, framed photograph of their daughter who had died on one of the branches of the Christmas tree. He did it as a reminder. It was a subtle message that their beloved daughter was still with them, just in a different way. He wanted so badly for his family and dear wife to get back to living again.
A few days later on Christmas Day, my mother was in church with her family. As is tradition in many congregations, they sang the lovely Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Christmas poem, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.”
My mother recalls the experience with exactness. She said as they started singing she heard a beautiful voice behind her and to her left. She recalls turning her head to see her mother singing the song with complete commitment. Tears filled my mother’s eyes. The song was back.
Throughout our lives we often “muddle.” Life demands many things from all of us. But during the holiday season it’s important to find our song and build more hope in our lives. Even now I can hear my grandmother singing:
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail, the Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”
Natalie Gochnour is an associate dean in the David Eccles School of Business at the University of Utah and chief economist for the Salt Lake Chamber.