I am too young to remember the year that The Pogues released “Fairytale of New York”. In 1987 I was busy desperately trying to out Santa Claus and failing miserably. I was more concerned with leaving out cookies and milk for the old guy than watching Top of the Pops to find out who won Xmas No1. (The Pogues didn’t!) I don’t even really remember when I first heard this song, it’s just always been a part of this season. However despite not having a massive first impression on me, it’s a song that I have since grown to love and admire.
I myself am always amazed at how few people make the connection between the song and its lyrics. I can picture my Gran whistling the tune merrily in the kitchen whilst preparing our family lunch, kids singing along giggling at the faggot line and the crowds in bars and clubs swaying and yelling the tune as it appears between Mariah Carey and Slade. Maybe this is the great thing about the song. A song drenched in sadness and loneliness but with the melodic cloak of joyfulness.
In fact the song – with its off-kilter momentum and its theme of shattered dreams – could be perfect for most of our Christmas holidays if truth be told.
In four minutes you are taken on a wild ride of emotions from desperate to euphoric, lovingly sentimental to spiteful and petty – I know this sums up several of my own Christmases but it also represents my mixed up feelings about the holiday in general.
The band behind the song are, of course, The Pogues – an Irish band formed in the early 1980’s featuring the female vocals of Kirsty Macoll. (Originally this part was meant for the Pogues female bassist who left the band just before its release). It has been said that the Pogues rather odd looking frontman, Shane MacGowan was inspired to write his bittersweet festive ballad after reading JP Donleavy’s 1961 novel “A Fairytale of New York” about an Irish American man’s return to booming, post-war New York after studying overseas.
The Fairytale of New York itself is a harrowing tale of a drunk and ruined Irish immigrant, his dreams of life in the big city crushed by alcoholism and drug addiction. MacGowan’s tale begins incarcerated in an NYC drunk tank on Xmas Eve. He closes his eyes and begins to dream about a lost love: “I´ve got a feeling/ This year´s for me and you/ So happy christmas/ I love you baby/ I can see a better time/ Where all our dreams come true.” As the band kicks in the tone and tempo change Kirsty MacColl captures the thrill and excitement of the couple’s arrival in USA: “They got cars big as bars/ They got rivers of gold/ But the wind goes right through you/ It´s no place for the old.”
As the tale progresses you see their euphoria of arriving in NYC disintegrate. The dialogue becomes increasingly argumentative and desperate. “You´re a bum you´re a punk/ You´re an old slut on junk/ Lying there almost dead on a drip in that bed/ You scumbag you maggot/ You cheap lousy faggot/ Happy Christmas you arse I pray God it´s our last.”
However against all odds the songs finale is one of love and hope. “Can´t make it out alone,” he pleads,
“I´ve built my dreams around you.” This line, above all gets my skin tingling. A final desperate tribute to a lost love and the hopefulness that despite everything they could’ve survived, as long as they were together.
It’s the perfect sentiment for Christmas in a way. It highlights the reality that there are people out there who have no one, who for whatever reason will spend that day alone. Instead of being a song that is used to celebrate the season it should be a reminder to us all to help those less fortunate than us in whatever way we can, something The Pogues have supported in the past by re-releasing the track and giving all funds raised to charities for the homeless.
Personally, writing this blog has been a whirlwind of emotion. I started with the intention to simply find out the story behind one of my favourite Christmas songs and have ended up with an overwhelming sense of guilt. I spent this weekend shopping for presents for my family who in all honesty don’t need a single thing in order to enjoy the holiday. I walked past people sat on the street asking for 50p when I had spent 10 times that on a joke book that will get read once (if I am lucky) and discarded. I’m really grateful for this task as it has led me to realise how lucky I am and that I am in the position to help someone else. I’m not rich, I don’t have much but I have something to share with those that have nothing. I hope that rather than feeling preached at, reading this you too will be inspired. And that sharing this with my family and friends they be too disappointed… when I don’t get them the expensive gifts they were hoping for but definitely don’t need!
If you want to help at Christmas but don’t know where to start check out this blog for ideas: Factoidz
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