During the second verse of The Pogues Fairytale of New York, Kristy MacColl sings, “You’re a bum, you’re a punk…, Happy Christmas your arse and I pray God it’s our last!”
It’s about this time that I usually start to cry a little when I hear Fairytale for the first time each holiday season.
While White Christmas, and Rudolph and all the rest are brilliant songs none of them do what The Pogues do – create a story that simultaneously drains the season of its sentimentality and celebrates the emotion all at the same time.
And this is what makes Fairytale of New York, not just the greatest “modern” Christmas carol but the greatest Christmas song of all time.
The first thing that makes the song special is that it takes place somewhere specific. This is no winter wonderland, this is gritty, glitzy urban America. And the fact that it takes places in New York City? Perfect.
If Christmas is still the most important holiday on the map of our increasingly secularized world then there is no better backdrop for the joy, the discovery, the romance and the love of Christmas then New York. Like it or not it is still THE dream city. As the song says: “If you can make it there…”
But the key thing that lifts Fairytale above its peers is the brutal emotional honesty of the song – it tells the (very) bittersweet story of an Irish immigrant couple’s rollercoaster love affair.
It starts with a wistful recollection of how New York seemed to them when they first came to the city: “They’ve got cars big as bars/They’ve got rivers of gold,” a tale that culminates with them kissing through the night as they listen to the “boys of the NYPD choir still singing Galway Bay/ And the bells are ringing out for Christmas Day.” It is a magical verse, filled with the hopes and possibilities of being young and in love in a city of possibilities.
What Fairytale does next though defines the song’s brilliance ̶ because in this romance life gets hard. The couple starts to doubt each other and eventually their love itself, leading us to McColl’s invective that gets me feeling all misty. The song affects me this way because amidst all the marketing and messaging Christmas matters because it is an intensely personal and family-focused holiday. Because of this, Christmas often brings out the best and the worst in us. Almost all of us can remember a heart-wrenching Christmas – we had lost someone dear to us, our financial situation was dire and the holiday seemed to be mocking us, or maybe, as in Fairytale, we were worried we had fallen out of love with the person we thought we were meant to be with forever.
And here is where Fairytale does everything great art does ̶ it redeems us. Over some of the most simply sweet string music you’ll ever hear Fairytale lets our hero and heroine rediscover their love. The magic of the season and the NYPD choir harken them back to that first Christmas, and ultimately they bear their souls to each other: “You took my dreams from me when I first found you,” she accuses him only to find out that her dreams, the dreams she thought she surrendered, are as intensely important to him now as they were when they first met. “I kept them with me babe, I put them with me own” he replies.
But that emotional honesty isn’t the only thing that makes the song brilliant: Fairtyale’s story, that of the immigrant experience, is uniquely relevant and important to us today.
We live in the age of the greatest migration in human history – never before have so many people tried to settle in new lands. If Christmas is the Western world’s “greatest” holiday then our most vital holiday song has to be able to speak to the times we live in and Fairytale does. In fact Fairtyale is SO good at it that it’s considered one of the greatest Irish songs of all time.
This is interesting for a couple of reasons. First of all, Shane McGowan, the lead singer of the Pogues was born in Kent, England in 1957. It’s a strange birthplace for someone who would go on to write one of the great Irish songs, as 1950s England was not considered a place where there was much in the way of pro-Irish sentiment. But McGowan was born to an Irish family who moved him back to Tipperary for a time when he was young. His mother was an Irish dancer and by all accounts she steeped young Shane in all things Irish. So it makes sense that Shane, although English by birth, was Irish in spirit.
Perhaps it is that dicotomy that makes Fairytale,feel both distinctly “Irish” and universal. This universality makes a certain kind of cultural sense when you consider how Hollywood has no trouble making two types of movies: those about the Holocaust and those about violence in Ireland/the difficulty of the Irish immigrant experience in America. In some ways those of us who consume movies are hardwired to be on the lookout for the Irish immigrant experience being a bittersweet roller coaster ride. Fairytale benefits from being part of a genre that has been drilled into our heads, but if it was just a genre story it would be familiar but not great.
In this respect Fairytale contains all the elements of a great holiday movie – and that’s why it stands apart from many of its contemporaries. During the holidays you will hear no shortage of covers. The great Christmas songs are sung again and again. This is a testament to the fact that songs like Jingle Bell Rock, The Christmas Song and Home for the Holidays are also brilliant. These are NOT bad songs. This isn’t my point at all. These are well-worn classics for a good reason. They are filled with a magic that transports us back in time and there are no shortage of artists who want to be involved with that magic (not to mention the profit).
But that’s why Fairytale surpasses them. It’s not a window back in time. It feels fresh, relevant and true because the emotions it deals with: feeling of being alone in the world and the highs and lows that can come with loving someone are universal.
Ironically the lack of “truth” isn’t just an issue with holiday song covers – it’s why the originals don’t stack up to Fairytale. Take White Christmas for example. This amazing song was written by Irving Berlin in the early 1940s and by Christmas, 1942 Bing Crosby’s version had become a smash hit. The Guinness Book of World Records estimates it is the bestselling album of all time. The song has remained popular because it’s so evocative of a simpler time.
But what is White Christmas about? We know that it became a hit in the 40’s because troops in WWII felt a special kinship to the song – it made them think about the cards their families were writing for them. But the song isn’t about WWII, or soldiers, or lost family. In the first verse, which is usually omitted, Berlin wrote about being in L.A. and missing the Christmases of his childhood. In effect White Christmas is itself a mediation on an earlier “more simple time.”
That’s the root of the problem with most secular Christmas songs ̶ they’re all about creating a world that never existed, a simple world where “tree-tops glisten/And children listen/To hear sleigh bells in the snow.”
These songs can be beautiful, and peaceful, but they create a false feeling since they are rooted in a fantasy world that never was. Life was not easier and simpler in the past, pretty much any major metric you choose to use – child-mortality, literacy, average life-expectancy, racial or sexual tolerance, the mere fact that we have the internet (only the largest, and most widely available, repository of human knowledge EVER) – all point to the fact that we are living in the greatest time there ever has been.
And you know what? Sometimes it still sucks.
I get it. We’re generally not looking for our holiday songs to remind us of the problems of the day. I mean who wants to be depressed during the holidays? It’s the worst fucking time to be depressed.
But that’s what makes Fairytale so brilliant. While the song isn’t afraid to make us sad it ultimately is about redemption. At the end after listening to the NYPD choir and being reminded of that first magical night in New York McGowan and MacColl sing about how their love is worth fighting for: “Can’t make it all alone/I’ve built my dreams around you”. In that moment Fairtytale is as unreservedly joyful and hopeful as the most mainstream holiday movie.
Don’t get me wrong. If every carol was like Fairytale the holidays would be an exhausting experience. We need the classic carols. We need the “holly jolly” and “chestnuts roasting on an open fire” and the “red noses” so we can just feel good. 
But what separates great art from good art is the complexity of human emotion it engenders. Fairytale makes us think, and makes us cry. It reminds us why we love and how wonderful love is, and how in this life everything is much better when we remember we’re beside someone we love.
 I was a bit worried that this statement makes me seem like an indie douche-bag. Then I realized between the crying and the footnote trying to explain that I’m not an indie-douche I’m more Emo than anything.
 The fact that it starts out ina drunk tank is of course highly stereotypical but then again, whose kidding who?
 In a similar way we are pre-disposed to look for the signs of brave and quiet resistance in films about the Holocaust.
 It’s at over 50 million copies and counting
 No matter how we use it the internet is a CROWNING accomplishment in the history of mankind.
 Even for me the first time I hear Fairytale is always the best. I’d be exhausted if I let myself feel the song so deeply every time I heard it.
Although I would argue that in Rudolph, because it does tell a tale with at least a LITTLE woe, is one of the more powerful and enduring carols we have.