Generic selectors
Exact matches only
Search in title
Search in content
Post Type Selectors
Filter by Categories
Examined Life
Further Materials
Slush Pile
Reading Room

Dispatches from the present


Fairytale Christmas


My favorite Christmas song is the Pogues and Kirsty MacColl’s “Fairytale of New York.” On Christmas Day last year I was walking up Milwaukee Avenue in Chicago to meet up with some friends. It was early in the afternoon and the sky was empty, and Chicago to me always feels very open and beautiful in that weather. At the time, it seemed pretty certain—correctly, as it turned out—that this was going to be my last winter in the city after almost ten years, because of the realities of the academic job market and the fact that my contract was running out at the end of the summer. I texted my friend Claire to wish her a happy Christmas and she replied to say that she was at home in England and a little drunk and getting emotional listening to “Fairytale of New York,” and so everything was as it should be. I started listening to the song myself and we spoke about it as I walked.

In the U.K., “Fairytale of New York” has been part of the holiday furniture for as long as I can remember. It was released as a Christmas single in 1987, and since then it seems to have steadily snowballed its way into its current status as one of the pop juggernauts of the season, at least as recognizable as “All I Want for Christmas is You” or “Last Christmas” would be in the States. The popularity of the song has always been slightly complicated by some flashes of real ugliness in its lyrics; so much so that there’s now a quasi-traditional debate every year about whether it ought to be censored in broadcasts (as it often has been in the past). I’ll say more about that in a moment, but it’s important to appreciate that the controversy—whatever you might think of it—reflects something intrinsic about the song. Like many other fairy tales, once you pay attention to “Fairytale of New York” it can seem like an astonishingly grim piece of work, and there’s a streak of misery and nastiness inside it that isn’t an accident, however much it’s a joyous and inexhaustible part of the holidays where I’m from. But it’s also this self-hating quality that makes it an almost uniquely optimistic Christmas song.

If you don’t know the outline already, the song is a duet sung from the perspective of an Irish couple who have emigrated to New York. The exact chronology is hazy, but the general impression is that it’s a series of (highly compressed) vignettes from different Christmases in their relationship. In the first—when the song is still very slow and gentle—the male half of the couple is recalling a Christmas Eve somewhere in the past when he was locked up in a drunk tank, listening to an old man talk about how he, the old man, would be dead before next Christmas. The narrator blocks this omen out of his mind and starts dreaming about the lover he’s singing to. And then, as if by magic, their fortunes seem to change:

Got on a lucky one, came in eighteen-to-one
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 when all our dreams come true

The whole band comes in after this, and the song transforms from a tinselly ballad into something huge and boisterous. In the next verse, the couple are in New York together, young and healthy and self-mythologizing. The woman marvels at the city (“They’ve got cars big as bars, they’ve got rivers of gold!”) and the man tells her she’ll be a star on Broadway. Sinatra is alluded to and there’s dancing and singing, and life feels like one big party. The chorus hits (sung by both of them: “The boys of the NYPD choir were singing ‘Galway Bay’ / And the bells were ringing out for Christmas Day”) and we’re on to the next scene. The couple are suddenly older and full of poison and hurling abuse at one another. He calls her an “old slut on junk” and she tells him he’s a “cheap lousy faggot” and she hopes this is the last Christmas they ever spend together. In the third verse, the rage has dissipated into melancholy. The man laments that he never made anything of himself, and the woman tells him he robbed her of her dreams. But then in the final moment the sentiment becomes tender again. “I kept them with me, babe, I put them with my own,” he replies. “Can’t make it all alone, I built my dreams around you.” There’s one last chorus, and then the band plays us out, and that’s the whole story.

Are we meant to be happy that the couple stays together in the end, if that’s what happens? I don’t know. As ecstatic as the music makes it sound, the relationship seems like it’s been a pretty wretched idea from the start, and you could imagine the pair continuing inside a destructive loop until one of them dies. One level up, there’s the question of how much of a difference the vicious language in the middle of the song makes. Is it just an embarrassment? Something worse? People can decide for themselves how to think about it, of course. When musicians cover the song these days the choice is almost always to modify the second verse into something more palatable. There are some things you’re just not going to bellow onstage in the year of our lord 2022 when you’re singing a Christmas tune.

Even so, it isn’t a pointless ugliness. The organizing emotion in “Fairytale of New York”—the one from which everything else in the song draws its full meaning—is self-loathing despair. These characters spew hate at one other because they are full of hate in that moment, but it’s worse than just rage at the sense of being wronged. It is a hatred born of the feeling that you’ve brought yourself to ruin. I made this choice and fell for this person and carried myself to this place… and now everything around me seems to be hopelessly polluted, and as it feels as if the most real things in my life are its mistakes. The fury this generates is the fury of apprehending an unbearable (because insurmountable) distance between yourself and goodness, and as such wishing for everything else around you to be as fucked up and diminished as you are. Of course it’s not pretty. And there’s a certain irony, I think, that because our culture has become so much more prepared to regard the epithets the couple use as a form of sin—as inexcusable stains—this aspect of the song gets amplified.

But it’s also why it matters that it isn’t the end of the story, and why the song leaves it open that what we discover is that the couple’s love is more real than the damage. On the phone last year, Claire said to me that of all the songs that get played to death at Christmas, “Fairytale of New York” is the only one that hits her as being somehow genuinely noncommercial in its aesthetic. The way I would put it myself is that most Christmas songs can’t get anywhere close to conveying that sense of wonder and relief that what you were sure was broken isn’t broken; because they aren’t designed to bring the feeling of ruin into view. But isn’t that the fundamental idea of the season, the hope that at the bottom of things there’s love and not loss? Merry Christmas to everyone, even if it’s a year when you feel as if everything is hopelessly fucked up. And, who knows, maybe it isn’t.