Last week, the BBC suddenly decided to censor The Pogues’ “Fairytale of New York”, bleeping out the word “faggot.” It wasn’t the first time the group had been banned; its “Birmingham Six” song, which talks about the dangers of “being Irish at the wrong place and at the wrong time” was condemned as being little short of treasonous when first released, even though charges against the six were eventually quashed. However, it was undoubtedly the most ridiculous censorship of the group, done, I suspect by someone far more eager to appear virtuous than to do anything concrete. But it served to remind me that not only is “Fairytale” one of the few modern Christmas songs to have survived any length of time, but it is also one of the few modern ones of any artistic worth.
In fact, I can only think of one other modern Christmas song that has survived a couple of decades: John Lennon’s “So this is Christmas” — and that has always struck me as insipid in its sentiment and banal in its rhyme. I don’t think anyone could hear “A very merry Christmas and happy New Year / Let’s hope it’s a good one without any fear” and imagine that he was at the top of his game when he wrote it.
By contrast, “Fairytale of New York” is a compressed and moving story. It starts off, almost stereotypically for the Pogues with the announcement that it was “Christmas Eve … in the drunk tank,” but soon moves into talking about people’s hopes and aspirations. The narrator, who is apparently aging but still comparatively young, talks about his lucky win at the racetrack (which probably landed him in jail as he celebrated too alcoholically), and how he hopes it’s an omen for the new year. Meanwhile, an old man beside him, who doesn’t expect to see another Christmas, starts singing, as the narrator starts thinking about his lover.
Then the song moves into a contrast between the dreams the narrator shared with his lover when they were young and their present life. The contrast is carried in a duet between The Pogues’ lead singer Shane McGowan and Kristie McColl, who was brought in for the occasion. The two old people recall their younger days, fall to cursing each other (which is where “faggot” is used, along with “slut” — apparently, words demeaning to women are no longer censored), ending with the man admitting that “I built my dreams around you.” Despite the exchange of abuse, the implication is that the narrator and his lover are still essential to each other.
To me, this song, in all its ambiguity and understatement, is a perfect expression of the modern, secular holiday season. It’s not about the real meaning of Christmas (whatever that is), and the saccharine sentiments of movies like The Santa Clause are completely absent from it. Instead, it’s about people trying to get by, failing, yet finding a comfort in each other all the same, And if the rituals of the season are no longer Christian, they still seem to bring comfort, as the upbeat chorus suggests:
The boys of the NYPD choir
Still singing “Galway Bay”
And the bells were ringing out
For Christmas day.
It’s this painful ambiguity, I think, that has allowed “Fairytale” to survive where other modern carols don’t. However much some people might wish things otherwise, we don’t live in a Christian age, and any attempt to pretend that we do is only going to ring false and be soon forgotten. Unlike other modern carol writers, The Pogues aren’t afraid to admit that. And if they are brutal and exaggerated in their expression of the fact, they are at least honest – and that’s the starting point for any memorable art.