Illustration by Carly Jean Andrews

‘Fairytale of New York’ Is the Best Christmas Song Ever

For decades, Americans have been ignoring Britain’s greatest contribution to holiday music. It’s time to change that

Britain has a lot of weird quirks that don’t seem to translate over to the States. Where your tipping culture is established and encouraged, ours is nervous and awkward; we sing full songs at football matches [Editor’s note: He means soccer games] with reckless abandon, while your cheering is less lyrical. And y’know what, I get it, I like that you have your things and we have our things, and we can do a big chuckle when we hang out about how different we all are.

But not at Christmas.

You see, for me, the most important thing about Christmas is that it’s a reason to listen to The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl’s “Fairytale of New York” — a song that despite its festivities, its East Coast setting, and its ubiquity on this side of the Atlantic, you guys still haven’t adopted. What gives? You’re doing Christmas wrong. You’ve been doing it wrong this whole time, and you need to sort that out.

Now, “Fairytale of New York” kind of shoehorned its way into the festive calendar, I think by dint of a great artistic injustice upon its first release, namely that it lost out on the much-coveted Christmas Number One spot to The Pet Shop Boys’ version of “Always On My Mind,” which isn’t even Christmassy and so should have been refused its release, quite frankly. If you’re going to release a song around Christmas at least put some jingle bells on it, for fuck’s sake. Anyway, history has a way of leveling these things out.

(The Christmas Number One is another one of those British quirks that you don’t have. You may remember Bill Nighy’s character vying for the honor in Love Actually. In recent years the competition has been co-opted by The X Factor, as the winner’s single would always go for it. I don’t know why everyone used to get excited about it, but we did, and “Fairytale” should have had that honor upon its 1987 release.)

A lot of people still claim that “Fairytale” isn’t really a Christmas song. What they mean is that it’s not a novelty record. But in terms of the narrative of the song, it’s totally festive, from the opening line: “It was Christmas Eve, babe, in the drunk tank.” In fact, I would go as far as to say that the feeling conveyed in this song, and established in this first verse, is exactly what you need to hear at Christmas.

On the surface, “It was Christmas Eve babe, in the drunk tank, an old man said to me, ‘Won’t see another one…’” is a deeply tragic opening line, but in fact, it is the catalyst for hope. Instead of descending into darkness, the song goes the other way — the old man begins to sing an old Irish folk tune (“and then he sang a song / The Rare Old Mountain Dew”), which gets the narrator to ruminate on something more positive in the next verse: “Got on a lucky one, came in eighteen to one, I got a feeling, this year’s for me and you.”

It’s this idea of light in a dark place that makes the song feel so hopeful, and so festive. Not just talking literally — bleak winter nights illuminated by street processions and candles and gaudy glowing neon everywhere — but metaphorically, too: the idea that looking forward to a positive Christmas can be a reprieve after a bad year.

This juxtaposition is then mirrored across the song’s two middle verses, with The Pogues’ lead singer and songwriter Shane MacGowan and Kirsty MacColl exchanging words at first with love and drunken, festive merriment, and then with anger and spite and bitterness, but both bookended with the beautiful, simple rhyming couplet chorus: “The boys of the NYPD Choir were singing ‘Galway Bay’ / and the bells were ringing out for Christmas Day.”

I think part of why the song is so beloved by Brits is our fascination with New York — we have so many cultural touchstones for New York, particularly at Christmas, so when you hear the line “they’ve got cars big as bars, they’ve got rivers of gold,” and references to Broadway and Sinatra and the NYPD, the overall effect is to create that picture in our head, and place these two very relatable characters into it.

Because that’s the other thing that makes “Fairytale” so perfect — Shane MacGowan and Kirsty MacColl (daughter of Ewan “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” MacColl, who was only brought in to record the vocals on the song initially because her husband, Steve Lilywhite, was the producer). Shane is Britain’s closest equivalent to someone like Tom Waits, an intensely lyrical and enigmatic songwriter — except where Waits is brooding and sexy, Shane is a moth-eaten, toothless vagrant.

You don’t see people like Tom Waits in your day-to-day life, but chances are everyone’s met a Shane McGowan lookalike propped up at the bar. Shane feels like an underdog, and so we as Brits are culturally programmed to root for him. Kirsty is similar in her everywoman appeal: Her voice is warm and works for this song perfectly, but it’s quite a familiar one at the same time — her accent is audible, and the character in the song feels more real than if, say, Chrissie Hynde, who was originally intended for the part, were to have sung it. Because then it’d just sound like Chrissie Hynde.

According to NME, the song came as the result of a bet made between Shane and The Pogues’ then producer, Elvis Costello, to write a Christmas song that wasn’t “slushy.” If that’s the case, I sort of think Costello wins. Okay, it’s not “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” but it’s closer to that than it is to, say, “River” by Joni Mitchell, the archetypal thinking-teenager’s favorite Christmas song. The fairytale of the title isn’t ironic; it’s just surrounded by a lot of cold weather. That final duet captures this, Shane the drunk romantic, Kirsty the sardonic realist. “I could have been someone,” “Well, so could anyone!” In the end, though, it’s Shane who wins out: “I can’t make it all alone, I built my dreams around you.”

I have watched Home Alone enough times to make a fair guess at what a typical American Christmas is like. Y’all have eggnog and sing carols and go to the big tree in Rockefeller Center and listen to Bing Crosby. Honestly, guys, it looks great, it really does, but come on — with the year it’s been? Unadorned, nonstop joy might be too much to ask this time ‘round. Take a leaf out of our book and set your bar a little lower. What we all need right now is light in a dark place.