Why is Fairytale of New York a Christmas song…a shot of reality

Why do we love Fairytale of New York with Shane MacGowan and Kirstie MacColl

It’s a mystery to some people. Why is Fairytale of New York a Christmas song? Some even listen to the gravelly voice of MacGowan and wonder why it’s a popular song at all.

Well, there’s no doubt it’s popular. We’ve sort of known it all along but now it’s official – Fairytale of New York by The Pogues and Kirsty MacCall is the most popular and most played Christmas song of the 21st century.

Shane-MacGowan CreativeCommons2 Masao Nakagami
Shane MacGowan

It’s no surprise to the millions of us who’ve long regarded it as a much needed breath of fresh air at this time of year. I mean, Christmas is great but it can be stressful – fighting your way through shopping centres to buy your presents, all the time having your ears bombarded with schmaltzy music everywhere you turn.

But then, just when you think you can’t stand another word about Rudolph and reindeers, something magical happens. The mood changes as the sound of a single piano suddenly wafts across the airwaves.

No matter how busy you are your ear prick up because you realise you’re listening to the opening bars of Fairytale of New York, and you know that for the next few minutes you’ll be safe from schmaltz and fake sentimentality.


It’s so harsh…so why is Fairytale of New York a Christmas song

It’s a brilliantly crafted song but it’s not exactly Jingle Bells is it? It’s harsh and sad…so why is Fairytale of New York a Christmas song and such a popular one at that?

The answer has to be that it’s a dose of reality at a time of forced jollity. We all love Christmas of course, but it’s not always the happy time we want it to be.

Fairytale of New York took over a year to write and it went through several stages before it started to look like the song we know today.

Band member Jem Finer describes how it started as a much happier story and he was pleased with it. But when he played it to his wife, she was unimpressed. Slightly hurt, Finer asked why and she replied that it seemed to a little fake in its happiness. She pointed out that for some people, Christmas was a sad and lonely time. 

This is born out by the figures. Christmas puts a lot of strain on relationships, so much so that a lot of marriages break down over the festive season and lawyers across the world prepare for a busy January as couples start divorce proceedings.

It may seem bleak but this this the reality for many people and it’s the avenue that the co-writers of the song, Jem Finer and Shane MacGowan chose to pursue. Thank goodness they did, and thank goodness for Mrs Finer, because the result is a wonderful glimpse into the real lives of so many of us. Perhaps, our lives are not as dramatic or extreme as the Shane MacGowan and Kirstie MacColl characters in the song but we can still identify because in our own way, we face stresses and strains at this time of year as well.

Now the emotion is raw, raucous and above all – real.

The song tells the story of a couple whose relationship disintegrates as they tear each other apart with insults and allegations while, by contrast, everyone around them is enjoying the festive spirit.

The couple are seen by many as Irish immigrants who come chasing the American dream, full of hope and optimism which is soon dashed as they descend into the chaos of drink, drugs and mutual recriminations.

The fact that the Pogues are so closely associated with Ireland and Irish music backs this up, as do the references to a drunk singing the Irish song, Galway Bay. This may be one of the reasons why Fairytale is so popular in Ireland.

But there must be more to it than that. The song is a favourite the world over, in countries where the Irish references are of no real significance.

MacGowan aggressive, MacColl uncompromising

Kirsty MacColl
Kirsty MacColl

The fact that the story takes place over Christmas isn’t the most important thing either.

In fact, that‘s largely incidental because, although the opening line begins with a conventional “It was a Christmas Eve babe”…. the next line “in the drunk tank” jolts into the sudden realisation that this is not going to be about Frostie the snowman or smiling children getting presents.

The song continues in the same harsh vein.

Shane MacGowan’s voice is deliberately gruff and aggressive, and although Kirsty MacColl’s vocals are pure and clear, they are also hostile and uncompromising.

Like eavesdropping on a real lover’s row

We get the feeling that we’re eavesdropping on a real row here and we like it.

But why does it strike a chord in the hearts of so many people?

Well, for me, it’s bitter sweet interplay between hope and despair. There’s the optimism of lines like “I can see a better time when all our dreams come true” and then the acceptance of defeat in lines like “Happy Christmas your arse I pray God it’s our last”.

Who at some point hasn’t thought “I could have been someone” and who hasn’t followed that up with the realisation “well so could anyone”.

This stuff has the ring of truth about it and that’s why we like it.

That truth rings out all the more at Christmas when so much airtime is given to the distorted reality of mythical Christmases where everyone gets on and everyone is happy.

Most played song of 21st century

We soon tire of that, which is why, according to figures released by the British music licensing body, PPL, Fairytale of New York is the most played Christmas song of the 21st century.

But it doesn’t stop there. It’s also the most the most popular song to listen to while you’re doing other things.

Heinz Frozen Food conducted a survey which found that Fairytale is the song most people like listening to while they cook; a survey by the SatNav people Garmin found that 21% of people consider it their favourite song while driving.

High praise indeed!

Happy birthday to Shane MacGowan

So, as it’s Christmas, why not treat yourself. Close your eyes and drift away to that glorious chorus:

The Boys of the NYPD choir still singing Galway Bay
And the bells were ringing out for Christmas Day.

Oh, and we can’t finish without wishing happy birthday to Shane MacGowan. He was born on Christmas Day…kind of appropriate really for the man behind the most popular Christmas song of the century!

Documentary reveals how Shane MacGowan really fancies Kirstie MacColl

Click on the links below for articles on The Fairytale of New York

Greatest Christmas song ever? ~ How it was written ~ Painful birth of classic ~ Shane as Sinatra
Producer Steve Lillywhite ~ Kirsty MacColl vocals ~ Kirsty MacColl stage fright
Unofficial NYPD choir ~ Lure of Big Apple ~ Not just for the Irish ~ Alternative Christmas
Most played Christmas song ~ Lyrics censored ~ The video ~ Lyrics and chords

Our readers give their verdict on Ed Sheeran’s Fairytale of New York

Categorized as Blog, Songs

By Patrick Kehoe

Pat Kehoe is a writer for Irish Music Daily. His favourite Irish music bands are the Dubliners and Planxty.