The Story of The Pogues’ “Fairytale of New York,” the Boozy Ballad That Has Become One of the Most Beloved Christmas Songs of All Time

Drug­store Cow­boy, Barfly, Leav­ing Las Vegas, even Bon­nie and Clyde… we love a good sto­ry about doomed, down-and-out lovers. What­ev­er emo­tion­al reser­voir they tap into, when writ­ten well and hon­est­ly, such sto­ries have broad cul­tur­al appeal. Which in part explains the over­whelm­ing pop­u­lar­i­ty of The Pogues’ 1987 clas­sic “Fairy­tale of New York,” the kind of “anti-Christ­mas song,” writes Dori­an Lyn­sky at The Guardian, “that end­ed up being, for a gen­er­a­tion, the Christ­mas song.”

Many hol­i­day sto­ries cyn­i­cal­ly trade on the fact that, for a great many peo­ple, the hol­i­days are filled with pain and loss. But “Fairy­tale of New York” doesn’t play this for laughs, nor does it pull the old trick of cheap last-minute redemp­tion.

Sung as a duet by Shane Mac­Gowan and Kirsty Mac­Coll to the boozy tune of an Irish folk bal­lad, the song “is loved because it feels more emo­tion­al­ly ‘real’ than the home­sick sen­ti­men­tal­i­ty of ‘White Christ­mas.’ ” Even if we can’t iden­ti­fy with the plight of a burned-out Irish dream­er spend­ing Christ­mas in a New York drunk tank, we can feel the ache of bro­ken dreams set in high relief against hol­i­day lights.

The song’s his­to­ry itself makes for a com­pelling tale, whether we believe the ori­gin sto­ry in accor­dion play­er James Fearnley’s mem­oir Here Comes Every­body: The Sto­ry of the Pogues or that told by Mac­Gowan, who main­tains that Elvis Costel­lo, the band’s pro­duc­er, bet the singer that he couldn’t write a Christ­mas duet. (Fearn­ley writes that they were try­ing to top The Band’s 1977 “Christ­mas Must Be Tonight.”)

Either way, a Christ­mas song was a good idea. “For a band like the Pogues, very strong­ly root­ed in all kinds of tra­di­tions rather than the present, it was a no-brain­er,” says ban­jo-play­er and co-writer Jem Fin­er. Not to men­tion the fact that Mac­Gowan was born on Christ­mas Day 1957.

Fin­er began the song as a tale about a sailor miss­ing his wife on Christ­mas, but after the ban­jo play­er’s wife called it “corny” he took her sug­ges­tion to adapt the “true sto­ry of some mutu­al friends liv­ing in New York.” Mac­Gowan took the title from J.P. Donleavy’s 1973 nov­el A Fairy Tale of New York, which hap­pened to be lying around the record­ing stu­dio. After a promis­ing start, the song then went through two years of revi­sions and re-record­ings before the band final­ly set­tled on the ver­sion mil­lions know and love, pro­duced by Steve Lil­ly­white and released on the 1988 album If I Should Fall From Grace with God.

Orig­i­nal­ly intend­ed as a duet between Mac­Gowan and bass play­er Cait O’Riordan, a ver­sion record­ed with her was “not quite there,” gui­tarist Philip Chevron has said. Soon after, O’Riordan left the band, and Mac­Gowan record­ed the song again at Abbey Road in 1987, singing both the male and female vocal parts him­self. Even­tu­al­ly Lil­ly­white took the track home to have his wife, Eng­lish singer Kirsty Mac­Coll, record a tem­po­rary guide vocal for the female parts. When Mac­Gowan heard it, he knew he had found the right foil for the char­ac­ter he plays in the song.

“Kirsty knew exact­ly the right mea­sure of vicious­ness and fem­i­nin­i­ty and romance to put into it and she had a very strong char­ac­ter and it came across in a big way,” Mac­Gowan lat­er remarked in an inter­view. “In operas, if you have a dou­ble aria, it’s what the woman does that real­ly mat­ters. the man lies, the woman tells the truth.” As part of her character’s “vicious­ness”, she hurls the slur “f*ggot” at Mac­Gowan, who calls her a “slut.” The offen­sive words have been cen­sored on radio sta­tions, then uncen­sored, and good cas­es have been made for bleep­ing them out (most recent­ly by Irish DJ Eoghan McDer­mott on Twit­ter).

Mac­Gowan him­self has issued a state­ment defend­ing the lyrics as in keep­ing with the char­ac­ters. “Some­times char­ac­ters in songs and sto­ries have to be evil or nasty in order to tell the sto­ry effec­tive­ly,” he writes, adding, “If peo­ple don’t under­stand that I was try­ing to accu­rate­ly por­tray the char­ac­ter as authen­ti­cal­ly as pos­si­ble then I am absolute­ly fine with them bleep­ing the word but I don’t want to get into an argu­ment.” What­ev­er posi­tion one takes on this, it’s hard to deny that Mac­Gowan, co-writer Fin­er, and Mac­Coll total­ly hit the mark when it comes to authen­tic­i­ty.

The gen­uine emo­tions “Fairy­tale of New York” taps into has made it the most beloved Christ­mas song of all time in TV, radio, and mag­a­zine polls in the UK and Ire­land. It has become “far big­ger than the peo­ple who made it,” writes Lynskey. Or, as Fearn­ley puts it, “It’s like ‘Fairy­tale of New York’ went off and inhab­it­ed its own plan­et.” An artist can’t ask for more. See mak­ing-of videos by the BBC and Poly­phon­ic at the top. Watch the band slop­pi­ly mime the song with Mac­Coll on Top of the Pops fur­ther up (Mac­Gowan can­not actu­al­ly play the piano). And just above, see the offi­cial video, star­ring Drug­store Cow­boy’s Matt Dillon—filmed inside a real police sta­tion on the Low­er East Side dur­ing a freez­ing Thanks­giv­ing week in 1987, for max­i­mum hol­i­day vérité.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

David Bowie & Bing Cros­by Sing “The Lit­tle Drum­mer Boy”: A Won­der­ful Christ­mas Chest­nut from 1977

Stream 22 Hours of Funky, Rock­ing & Swing­ing Christ­mas Albums: From James Brown and John­ny Cash to Christo­pher Lee & The Ven­tures

Stream a Playlist of 68 Punk Rock Christ­mas Songs: The Ramones, The Damned, Bad Reli­gion & More

Hear Paul McCartney’s Exper­i­men­tal Christ­mas Mix­tape: A Rare & For­got­ten Record­ing from 1965

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • JV says:

    Most of us can’t iden­ti­fy with the char­ac­ters’ spe­cif­ic cir­cum­stances, but this stan­za:

    I could have been some­one
    Well so could any­one
    You took my dreams from me
    When I first found you
    I kept them with me babe
    I put them with my own
    Can’t make it all alone
    I’ve built my dreams around you

    Oof. Any­one in a long-term rela­tion­ship, no mat­ter how suc­cess­ful, has had thoughts like these. I get teary-eyed every damn time I hear it, and even now com­ment­ing about it. Not to men­tion the music is just top-notch. One of the all-time great songs from one of the all-time great song­writ­ers.

  • Steven Hardy says:

    Thanks for the sto­ry of the Pogues’ “Fairy­tale of New York,” one of my favourite Christ­mas songs. I think you might like this one from Cana­da, in the same spir­it — “If I Don’t Make it Through This Christ­mas.”

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