No song has ever boasted a more auspicious debut. Sung by a young and luminously lovely Judy Garland, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” premiered in December 1944, the centerpiece of MGM’s classic musical, Meet Me in St. Louis. That month also marked America’s third year of war.

The audiences who first heard Garland sing Ralph Blane and Hugh Martin’s bittersweet lyrics knew that Allied victory was inevitable. But they also knew that enormous sacrifice and numbing losses were equally unavoidable. Even as moviegoers marveled at Garland’s snowy set, the American army, fighting in Belgium, was suffering its worst winter since Valley Forge. “Someday soon we all will be together/If the fates allow/Until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow,” Garland sang. And the Americans who heard her uncertainty shared that sense of dread.

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