‘Tis the season to hear the same songs repeated endlessly on the radio. You know the ones. There’s lots of bells, some heartbreak, and just enough words in the repeat so everyone can sing along.
This song is not one of them. This wee tune is a perennial favorite in the U.K. It follows the drunken Christmas Eve exploits of an Irish emigrant in New York City. If you live in Ireland or the U.K., odds are this is your favorite Christmas song. If you live in America, you’ve probably never heard it.
It’s a bottlesmashing punkification of traditional Irish folk music, a bittersweet festive ballad inspired by JP Donleavy’s 1961 novel “A Fairytale of New York” about an Irish-American man’s return to the booming, post-war city after studying overseas.
Once upon a time, the Pogues set out to make a Christmas song. Not about snow or sleigh rides or mistletoe or miracles, but lost youth and ruined dreams.
It’s a kind of anti-Christmas song that ended up being The. Christmas. Song. for a generation.
Does the argument take place after the man leaves the drunk tank or does the whole song unfold in his sozzled head? The story is told almost entirely in flashback. And while the “cars big as bars” and the singing of Galway Bay (a 1948 hit for Bing Crosby, beloved of Irish immigrants) place the action in the 1940s, the words suggest that the characters are much older, remembering their glory days.
Fairytale of New York has ended up being a parable of the band’s life together: the youthful optimism, the bitter recriminations, the uncertain detente.
The ending is completely open.