“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” by Judy Garland and by Perry Como

During this year’s Thanksgiving celebration, my family and I were discussing holiday songs. My mother mentioned how much she loved Judy Garland’s rendition of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” “No one sings that song better than she did,” my mom declared. My father piped in saying that he liked Perry Como’s rendition of the same tune. This led me to, a few days later, listen anew to both versions. Really, if Judy’s version is London, then Perry’s is Tokyo.

Judy’s is the original, from the 1944 film Meet Me in St. Louis, which I have never seen. (Note to self–try to watch in 2013.) She sings with a heavy heart–her voice is on the verge of cracking and potentially escalating to full-throttle meltdown at any minute. Don’t listen to this version if you’ve recently lost a loved one or are going to be away from home for Christmas. This is one of the saddest recordings of all time.

Then we have Perry’s rendition. His take is downright jaunty. There are jingling bells and cheery background singers. Some lyrics have been modified or replaced with more uplifting, hopeful words. The tempo is sped up. And while little moments in this song can make you feel sentimental, you generally feel cheerful and hopeful when this version ends.

Two singers. Two very different lives influencing their artistry. Two separate arrangements, accompanying musicians, styles, and outcomes.

And yet, the same song.

This led to me to reflect on the gift that is perspective. I am a person who cannot stop herself from becoming emotionally involved–with people,  interests, events. If something matters to me, it matters entirely. I don’t know how to maintain objectivity or distance myself from feeling strongly–whether it’s about loved ones, politics, religion, sports, music, matters at work, matters at home. My default inclination is to take things seriously, whatever those things may be.

Usually, when I’ve become once again consumed and preoccupied, I’ve forgotten about the importance of keeping things in perspective. Cliches abound to demonstrate the role that interpretation can play in our lives and the different paths upon with such interpretation can set us. One person’s trash is another person’s treasure. Some see the cup half full, while others see it half empty. And some people have merry little Christmases like Judy, while others have them like Perry. (OK, the last one I made up.)

Reflecting on this, I have realized that the times in my life when I have struggled the most have been when I’ve lost the ability to keep things in perspective. This is not an earth-shattering revelation, I realize, but it’s an important idea to keep front and center during the holidays. Unchecked stress can turn things that can be wonderful, like giving gifts, decorating, and sharing one’s home, into just more pains in the a**. The shift from one year to another can be viewed either with hope for all that could be accomplished or with disappointment over all that did not get done.

I’ve tried without success to find who originally said “events themselves have no meaning–only the meaning we give them.” This idea is a hallmark of approaches to treating depression and anxiety, both of which can be problematic at this time of year. It seems to be the basis of existential philosophy and close to the approach of Eastern religions. I believe there is much that is good about this viewpoint, but I am reluctant to totally accept it. My fear is of confusing perspective with detachment, and there is a difference, albeit subtle.

To simplify, there is the idea that to truly be spiritually evolved, one must detach from this world and all that it offers–both good and bad. While I think it is always helpful to maintain a sense of objectivity, detachment can negate experiencing life to its fullest. The very act of living–of honoring the good and the bad, of learning to contextualize events, and of actually assigning meaning to the whole of your humanity–this, to me, is worthwhile in and of itself. Our true purpose may be just to experience and assign meaning, if not for posterity, then simply for ourselves while we are alive. (I am an amateur in trying to summarize this–these issues are best explored and articulated by Viktor Frankl in his masterwork Man’s Search for Meaning, a text I re-read whenever a sense of despair decides to come calling at my door.)

The flip side of perspective is balance. Too often, we forget the things we learned from challenging events and overvalue or romanticize happy times and events. Life is the summary of both the sad and the sublime. Living successfully, for me, has meant living in balance–an ongoing challenge for my naturally intense and serious personality, but a truth I remind myself of continually whenever I start drifting too low or too high . . .

And so, in honor of perspective and balance, today’s song is presented in both incarnations. Judy and Perry each have something to offer to the holiday. You can choose to like one more than the other. Or not.

I choose to treasure both.

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