I’m sure that when I bought If I Should Fall From Grace With God I knew that “Fairytale of New York” had been a huge hit single in the U.K., though that’s not the reason I bought the album. I bought it because it was the new Pogues album, and “Fairytale of New York” was just one of several songs I loved on it.
And one thing’s for sure: I really didn’t think of “Fairytale of New York” as a Christmas song, but rather just another of Shane MacGowan’s tales of scumbags and maggots which just happened to be set on Christmas Eve. In the drunk tank.
Which just goes to show how alienated I was from Christmas in the late 1980s. Luckily, the greater culture has shown me the light, and “Fairytale of New York” has become the rarest of the rare: a Christmas song that I can enjoy year-round.
It’s also the most unlikely song to ever become a Christmas standard. There are happy Christmas songs that all about the joy of the season, whether religious or secular, and there are sad songs about missing people or how loss and grief somehow become more acute amidst all of the celebration.
But “Fairytale of New York” is neither. Instead, it’s ambivalent. Half of the verses are about joy and hope that come with a new love and a new city, and the other half are about the hard reality of living in a place that can spit you up and chew you out while your relationship hits the skids.
And I think that ambivalence is what makes it work. It’s what makes “Fairytale of New York” continue to resonate we get older, and look forward to some parts of Christmas while dreading the other parts. Or maybe that’s just me.
Maybe. ]All I know for sure is that there is no Christmas moment more beautiful that Kirsty MacColl & Shane MacGowan leaning into the chorus:
The boys of the NYPD choir
Were singing “Galway Bay”
And the bells were ringing out
For Christmas day
Of course that beauty of that chorus is almost instantly contrasted with the narstiest verse in the entire song. You know, the one featuring words that were problematic in the mid-1980s but have clearly graduated to outright offensive these days, and yet are absolutely necessary to convey the mood of the characters.
Just having those now-forbidden words in a wannabe Christmas standard was clearly an act of subversiveness in the 1980s, but now it seems practically like a miracle.
As does the singing of the now-dead Kirsty MacColl, who was brought by her producer hubby Steve Lillywhite to sing the part originally written for bassist Cait O’Riordan, who had run off with former producer Elvis Costello.
While her vocals are prettier than MacGowan’s — duh! — they aren’t that much prettier, and if anything, she brings out the best in MacGowan, who — unlike the guy he’s singing about — is clearly on his best behavior.
The beauty, the ugly, the celebration, the ambivalence, it’s all of a piece of a song that has become larger than life over the years. A song that has become, well, a fairytale, now that I think about it.
Official Video for “Fairytale of New York”
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