The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl: Fairytale Of New York
pparently this was recently voted peoples’ favorite Christmas song on a VH1 special. I’ll admit to a brief moment of knee-jerk resentment; for whatever psychological reasons it bugs me to think of “Fairytale Of New York” as some sort of standard. I mean, it is the greatest Christmas song of all time, and I salute the people surveyed on their taste; but it’s my Christmas song, damnit. “Fairytale Of New York” and I go way back.
It was there in my childhood; when we used to go on any sort of car trip with my dad we would all listen to music. When I was young enough (i.e. before I got a Walkman) we’d take turns picking a tape from Dad’s copious selection of mixes rather than listening to the radio. I could swear “Fairytale Of New York” was on there, but those tapes have been gone for years and there’s no way to check. But I was singing along to the people singing about the policemen singing “Galway Bay” since I was a wee babe. So I feel a bit proprietary.
You’ll note, before I really get into it, that “Fairytale Of New York” possesses not a dram of religious sentiment. Well, I’m cheerfully agnostic, and so is the rest of my immediate family. Our Christmas has always been a purely secular thing. This probably factors into why I think “Fairytale Of New York” is the best Christmas song ever, and not just one of the best, but it’s a gorgeous song no matter why you observe Christmas or even if you celebrate something else.
Throwing decorum aside, “Fairytale Of New York” isn’t exactly the soul of restraint (just like the holidays!); MacGowan and the sadly departed MacColl sing all over each other, slurring words and tossing insults (she’s an “old slut on junk”, he’s a “cheap lousy faggot”, the one part of the song that makes me wince). You could easily dismiss it as merely dysfunctional and assume I’m saying it is the greatest Christmas song of all time because I am a cynical bastard and I think Christmas sucks and is all about squabbling with the family and getting loaded. But you’d be wrong.
The song starts out tender (in both the hung-over and the sweet sense), MacGowan recounting Christmas Eve in the drunk tank, yes, but also his recent gambling win, and dreams for the future. MacColl lets us know, as the tempo picks up, that they met on a Christmas Eve, and after some light banter they really get into it, blaming each other for anything they can get their hands on, MacColl ending with “Happy Christmas your arse / I pray God it's our last”. But then they sing the chorus again and this string section that actually sounds like it belongs on a Christmas song takes over a little. And it all feels, despite itself, grand a sweeping and even a little touching.
They squabble a little more, same as every Christmas, but they’re losing steam; finally MacColl accuses MacGowan of stealing her dreams when they met. This is a terribly poetic way to depict for us the deadening of expectations in shitty lives. But MacGowan’s voice turns gentle (if still rough) and he responds:
“I kept them with me babe
I put them with my own
Can't make it all alone
I've built my dreams around you”
He sounds a little abashed—the last line is practically muttered. This is a couple clearly more comfortable slinging profanity than admitting sentiment. And then they sing “The boys of the NYPD Choir are singing ‘Galway Bay’ / And the bells are ringing out on Christmas Day” again, and it’s still oddly uplifting when you consider how little those two things mean to most of us (but not to them, of course), and then the song goes off into the air.
I don’t know whether you could say they’ve made up, exactly, but they’re not pretending they don’t love each other any more. It’s a tough old life, and “Fairytale Of New York” practically oozes urban decay, poverty, alcoholism and general dysfunction. But right now, as those strings waltz off out of sight, it doesn’t matter. Not to them and not to us. Because it’s the day to sigh and give in to our better inclinations and hold each other and admit there’s still something there, if you’re these two. It’s the arbitrary day of the year that purely through willpower and tradition we’ve turned into the day where we all try just a little harder at being better than we thought we could be. It’s Christmas, and it’s imperfect and occasionally messy, but if you dig a little, there’s something wonderful there. And that’s why, whatever your convictions, “Fairytale Of New York” is not only the most beautiful, but the best Christmas song humanity has ever made. May it endure.