On a cold, dark winter's night, five-year-old Tootie (Margaret O'Brien) and her older sister Esther (Judy Garland) peer out from an upstairs window, its sill covered in snow. The window and the house are cast in shadow. A shot-reverse-shot reveals the pair are looking out across the yard to the window of the boy next door. He pulls down the blind and, in the following shot, this action creates a darker shadow that descends on the girls' faces. Into this single action is distilled the despair in which the sisters have been plunged on Christmas Eve as they contemplate their family's impending move from their hometown of St Louis to New York. The framing, the muntin bars, the shadows and the sombre lighting all suggest a film noir, or at least – given that it is shot in Technicolor – the darkest moments of a Douglas Sirk melodrama.

In her introduction to the film, Liza Minnelli describes Meet Me in St Louis (1944) as "my favourite holiday movie." Vincente Minnelli's musical indeed makes a frequent appearance on lists of all-time favourite Christmas movies. It was, after all, the film that gave us the enduringly popular, and often misunderstood, Christmas song "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." The song is in fact a brooding, almost melancholic meditation on transience and death and the line which now reads "Let your heart be light" was originally written as: "It may be your last."

Writing in The New York Times at the time of the film's release, Bosley Crowther described Meet Me in St Louis as "charming" and "warm and beguiling." True, the film in its entirety contains jubilant scenes awash with bright colours and wonderfully rich sets. A festive atmosphere permeates much of the film with the excitement of adolescent love, childhood tomfoolery, the merriment of parties and dances, and the anticipation of the approaching St Louis Fair. Minnelli's musical is punctuated with scenes of spontaneous singing and dancing (indeed, it was one of the first examples of the integrated musical, which incorporates singing and dancing in the diegesis), from the buzz and excitement of "The Trolley Song," to the wistful "The Boy Next Door" and the delightful "Under the Bamboo Tree." The latter song-and-dance sequence is especially charming due both to the unpolished performance of Tootie's maladroit cakewalk and the genuine affection Garland has for her onscreen sister, O'Brien, which pervades the scene.

Yet, Meet Me in St Louis is a curious Christmas film in that only a brief segment in the third chapter of the film, Winter – the film itself is structured around the four seasons – is actually dedicated to Christmas proper, compared to other popular Christmas films which take the holiday as their main setting. Perhaps more curious is the fact that the Christmas sequence is the darkest in a film that has its share of dark moments (for example, the famous Halloween sequence in which Tootie is declared "the most horrible" for volunteering to "kill" the terrifying Mr Braukhoff by throwing a handful of flour in his face; and the scene in which Tootie accuses – falsely – the boy next door John Truett of having assaulted her in the rail yard). Indeed, many of the gothic or macabre aspects of the film come from Tootie herself, making the film also a meditation on the darker side of the child's imagination. Tootie is obsessed with death, and in one particular scene she announces her doll has "four fatal diseases," to which the iceman replies: "And it only takes one!"

Nevertheless, while the darkness of these scenes foreshadows the Christmas sequence, nothing can really prepare us for Tootie's frenzied slaying of the snowmen, a kind of death by proxy of her family. If she can't have her family here in St Louis (in her own words, her favourite city in the world), she'd rather not have them at all. To reassure her younger sister, Esther sings her a lullaby (the famous "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" scene). Far from consoling Tootie, the ideas implied by the lyrics send her into a murderous rage. She runs downstairs, out into the front yard, takes a broom handle from one of the snowmen and begins to break them apart. The scene ends with Tootie sobbing inconsolably in Esther's arms.

Given not only the melancholy of this sequence, but also its inherent, if displaced, violence, why is Minnelli's film so often considered a Christmas favourite, particularly since the Christmas sequence is both the briefest and the darkest in the film? First, Meet Me in St Louis contains so many other colourful sequences which capture, if not directly, the festive spirit, particularly those centred on family gatherings and anticipation. Secondly, the ambivalence of the snowman sequence, including the symbolic "slaying" of the family, calls to mind the underlying ambivalence attending any family gathering where good cheer is mandatory. Thirdly, one might evoke the iconography of the snowman which, far from embodying the notion of Yuletide fun, for a long time stood for something quite different. Conceived primarily as an effigy by which the early Christians of the Middle Ages might take out their frustrations and heap with blame (with the melting snowman these frustrations would disappear), by the sixteenth century the snowman stood as a consolation for the hardships of winter. Snowmen were often parodies of known figures (as they are in Meet Me in St Louis) but they also stood in for the transient nature of the human condition. All these things are brought into play in the Christmas sequence in Minnelli's film.

Finally, there is at the centre of the snowman sequence, and at Christmas itself, the figure of the child. The mood of the sequence, its chiaroscuro lighting, extends from Tootie herself, the chère enfant, as her sister Rose ironically calls her. In this way, the Christmas sequence in Meet Me in St Louis links with the destruction of the Halloween sequence. The child, the bearer of this destructive Eros, is our way into these sequences and the pleasure we feel at watching them is proof we have not forgotten the darker imaginings of our own hearts.