Irish traditional music with dark lyrics about addiction and domestic violence isn’t typical festive material. Yet 25 years on, ‘Fairytale of New York’ by The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl is often cited as the nation’s favourite Christmas song. It’s even hard to believe the Pet Shop Boys beat it to Christmas number one.
If you look beneath its surface, it’s surprising we came to love it so much. The whole song is lined with sadness. The opening piano part is undeniably melancholic, and when Shane MacGowan begins singing the verses, he’s telling the experience of a failed Irish immigrant in America. Lazily slurring his way through the lines, he’s a very believable drunk – a true storyteller, speaking from the heart.
The track deals with the recurrent Christmas theme of counting your blessings. MacGowan pities the old man singing in the drunk tank with him, unlikely to live out the year; and yet, listening to his narrative, we pity MacGowan. It reminds me of that harsh line in ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’, that Bono didn’t want to sing, but which resonates stronger than any other in the song: ‘Well tonight thank God it’s them instead of you.’
But once the band kicks in, it’s joyous and uplifting. As an Irishman, it takes me back to home and a time long since past – like everything we enjoy at Christmas, it’s hugely nostalgic. The jig is wistful, the monochrome video is classic, and the line ‘Sinatra was swinging’ takes us right back to the glamorous 1940s. On top of that, there’s no better place to set Christmas than in New York – a cityscape draped in blankets of snow, infused with neon lights, filled with magic and possibility. As the location of jazz standards and Hollywood movies since time began, it’s always been a city of fantasy and dreams for people around the world – but in this song, the singers face the harsh realities of life against the ‘fairytale’ setting of the city.
Despite the broken relationship depicted through the song’s dialogue, there’s a resolution in the line ‘and the bells were ringing out for Christmas day’. It’s not just a background to their squabbling. Christmas somehow softens the blow of their failed dreams; and of course, by it’s true meaning, Christmas is a time of new beginnings. Even the untimely passing of Kirsty MacColl herself brings a new sense of poignancy to the song. If I had to sum up its tone in one word, it’s bittersweet. That’s why you’ll find yourself singing along with a smile on your face, but also maybe with a tear in your eye.
This article originally appeared in SoSoGay magazine.