The Pogues’ Fairytale of New York Is The Greatest Christmas Song Ever


I defy anyone not to get a lump in their throat at those first few notes, well at least towards the beginning of December when it hasn’t been blasted out in every pub and supermarket around one thousand times.

Whereas most Christmas songs focus on the trimmings of Christmas – the rocking around the tree and the roasting chestnuts – Fairytale of New York reaches that little bit deeper.

It is around the end of the year that many of us reflect on what could have been, the ‘someone’ we could have been and the relationships which descended into arguments and bitterness.

But its also a time when we nurse a wistful hope that the coming year might prove to be kinder to us, that our luck will finally come in.

The Pogues’ take on Christmas nostalgia reflects all this and strips away the gloss of sleigh bells and mistletoe which so often decorates festive music, capturing the melancholy of another year over like even John and Yoko couldn’t achieve.

Indeed, the Celtic song of crushed dreams was birthed after Elvis Costello bet Shane MacGowan and Jem Finer they couldn’t think up a non-slushy Christmas song.

Despite it’s grim brand of sentimentality, this slurring, bittersweet song strikes a genuine chord with people, whether they have Irish blood or not.

The love story told by MacGowan and the powerfully voiced Kirsty MacColl is dark and, well, quite depressing at times. So what are the secret ingredients to its success?

Speaking with UNILAD, Lecturer in Contemporary and Popular Music at Newcastle University, Dr. Adam Behr, explained:

Unlike (many) other Xmas songs – FOTNY draws on folk (and to an extent punk) tropes, rather than the more explicitly ‘commercial’ Tin Pan Alley, Great American Songbook lineage of White Christmas et al.

Also, it isn’t about Christmas itself as is usually the case but, rather, it uses Christmas as a backdrop to a narrative about a love story gone sour.

Christmas can be a very complicated time for many of us, and overly happily songs can feel jarring and inane, especially when you aren’t in the mood to wish it could be Christmas every day.

However, in my own personal experience, this lyrically poignant track – with its ambivalently hopeful ending – unites Christmas elves and Scrooges alike.

Those who typically balk at songs which dare to mention the (festive) C-word are usually won over by this poetry tinged, rough-around-the-edges ballad.

There is something genuinely personal and identifiable about these ‘fairytale’ characters for many people, as Shane MacGowan himself has previously attested, according to The Guardian:

I identified with the man because I was a hustler and I identified with the woman because I was a heavy drinker and a singer.

I have been in hospitals on morphine drips, and I have been in drunk tanks on Christmas Eve.

Fairytale’s popularity isn’t purely anecdotal. Yuletide after yuletide, Fairytale Of New York is sprinkled with a freshly sparkling layer of awards and accolades, the boozy angel on top of the Christmas song poll tree.

A nationwide poll in 2014 found 23% of Brits viewed the duet to be their favourite festive tune. It was also voted number one in the VH1 greatest Christmas song chart three years in a row (2004, 2005, and 2006).

And it’s impact stretches way beyond the season of advent. Fairytale was voted Number 83 in Q Magazine’s 100 Greatest Ever Songs, 84 on BBC Radio 2’s 100 greatest songs of all time and 204 in NME’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.

Could we imagine the same praise being snow-piled on top of Mariah Carey’s deliriously Christmassy All I Want For Christmas Is You?

According to Dr Behr, Fairytale of New York appeals to those who might not be completely on board with certain aspects of the festive season:

It can appeal to people whose attitude to Christmas is a bit more ambivalent, from either a non-religious or anti-commercial perspective.

But it still carries enough of the tropes of Christmas (musical – the bells, lyrics – ringing out for Xmas day, etc.) to fit into the broad aesthetic category of ‘Xmas song’ and appeal to the more celebratory minded.

Dr Behr concludes:

Basically, (even though it’s still a commercial pop song at the end of the day) it’s musical lineage means that it evokes a sense of ‘authenticity’ and approaches Xmas from an oblique angle that straddles the sentimental aspect of that time of year but still allows the listener a sense of ironic distance if they want one.

I also spoke to Associate Professor Sonja Tiernan, who is part of the Irish Studies Research Group at Liverpool Hope University.

Professor Tiernan notes how the song has become truly timeless in a number of ways:

It was written as a Christmas song as it was produced as a Christmas song, but it’s one of those songs that you can hear it in June or July and people still like because it kind of surpasses even Christmas time.

But its because the themes in it haven’t actually changed that much, you know, its a ballad that still works, its nice to listen to, but its also kind of one of those things that strikes a chord with people, so it has definitely become timeless

Created in 1986, Fairytale has significant literary and historical weight behind it, which is appealing and gives in a timelessness which transcends the perspective of the 1980s.

According to Professor Tiernan, strong elements of Irish culture are threaded through this very traditional modern ballad. The Rare Old Mountain Dew sung by the old man in the drunk tank is an old Irish ballad dating back to the 19th century.

The iconic musical score in the middle is ceilidh music, which would traditionally be played at an Irish social gathering. The storytelling style is very similar to old Irish ballads, which would be passed down through the generations.

Partly inspired by the similarly named 1961 novel A Fairytale Of New York by Irish-American novelist J.P. Donleavy – MacGowan personally visited Donleavy to ask his blessing to use the title.

Professor Tiernan also remarked upon how the song’s themes of migration make it more personal to a lot of people:

If you think of somebody like Shane MacGowan, he himself was from Irish parents, so he knew the immigrant experience.

And I think there’s so many people – especially living in Britain – who kind of appreciate, and even if they aren’t immigrants, they come from maybe immigrant backgrounds – grandparents or parents.

Professor Tiernan notes how the migration theme resonates with those who have migrated from other countries other than Ireland, adding a further level of timelessness.

Merry Christmas. But if you don’t believe this is the greatest Christmas song of all time, then in all honesty you deserve a big lump of coal in your stocking this year.