Listen to "028 :: FAIRYTALE" on Spreaker.


"Fairytale of New York" by The Pogues featuring Kirsty MacColl, from If I Should Fall from Grace with God released by Warner Music in 1988. Listen


Here's another one that fell through the cracks, another song I have no right not to have heard until now. And I couldn't even get to it in time for Christmas. But like the song's narrator, let's pretend that it's an earlier time and take this as an opportunity to reminisce on Christmases past, on better and worse years, and on dreams once held.

If you, like me, are new to this song, it's a parable in three acts, the story of a couple of immigrant kids finding their way to New York City and each other. And it begins here, in the way young love often does, with tenderness and hope, a feeling that makes everything seem ready to burst open with excitement and anticipation.

The song seems to understand so much about life, like how falling in love with a person often coincides with falling in love with a place. Or how nothing makes a new place feel more like home than coming across a piece of where you came from, like seeing the local police choir singing an old Irish tune.

But the song also understands that new love never stays so pretty, and in its second act it shows how quickly those initial feelings of jubilation can sour, as the young lovers viciously bicker back and forth. And there it is again, that reminder of where they came from, now seeming like a symbol of the inescapability of who they were and still are.

So how does it all end? In a word, ambivalently. Our lovers are civil again, but not without grievance. Because the song understands that the most powerful relationships in our lives are never simply one thing, but those where tenderness exists alongside bitterness, where the things we cherish most dearly are also those that break our heart.

It's no fairytale romance, but it's all the more poignant because of that. It's no cheery Christmas carol, but it's none the lesser for it. And the song itself is no pristine composition, either; it's imperfect, and weird, and rough around the edges. But that's precisely what makes it so affecting. It's a celebration of life in all its messiness and complexity, and what better to celebrate on Christmas Day than that.

Liner Notes

Shane MacGowan, the lead singer of The Pogues, died on November 30, 2023. Sadly, I suspect I wouldn't have come across this song when I did were it not for his passing, despite the fact that "Fairytale of New York" is a regular UK chart topper each year over the holidays. After the news of his death, many eulogies were shared across the Internet, including one by Jeff Tweedy in his newsletter, which inspired George Saunders to write his own tribute in his newsletter, which ultimately landed in my inbox. Saunders's tribute is basically just a close reading of "Fairytale of New York", which is, characteristically, very astute and observant.

"Fairytale of New York" was also performed at MacGowan's funeral, in a rendition by Glen Hansard and Lisa O'Neill.