The holiday season seems to come earlier and earlier with Christmas sales even appearing before Thanksgiving this year. Everyone has their own touchtones for these early winter months. Black Friday, in November, is the official start of holiday shopping (as if that needed an official start) and for the next 30 days people will be flooding stores in search of some kind of perfect gift. Christmas trees (and menorahs) are going up, earnestly gaudy decorations are popping up on houses and in living rooms and red clothing is becoming relevant in even the most monochromatic of wardrobes. People in warm climates dream of snow while people in cold climates allow themselves to enjoy it at least through New Year's Day. While the sounds of Christmas are in large part dominated by Bing Crosby and Salvation Army charity bells, in my life no December is complete without one song: The Pogues classic "A Fairytale of New York".
This is not a song I ever sang in school. It's not one I've ever heard from a caroler's lips. But it is the most stirring holiday song I've ever encountered. It's full of nostalgia, longing, a sense of youthful adventure and tragic heartbreak - in short, the breadth of human experience. From its drunken, squalid beginnings in a jail cell on Christmas Eve the song is transported to a past relationship, yearning for the both the sweet fervor of beginning and the rocky agony of ending. Even more powerful than the particular story being told is the idea it expresses: that love and passion don't necessarily fade even though the relationship that spawned them might be irreparably destroyed. Shane McGowan wistfully singing, "I turned my face away and dreamed about you," promises that those feelings have life beyond the moment they are experienced and the song's final, haunting verse reveals through a painful exchange of bitterness and love that while the individual moments my only reside in the past the emotions will always be real.
Musically the song is just as stirring as its lyrics, from the slow, rolling intro sparsely featuring McGowan's gravelly croon over a simple piano to his interplay with strings, winds and Kirsty MacCall's sharp, rebellious vocal. My heart races with impetuous romance whenever I hear her sing, "When you first took my hand on that cold Christmas Eve/ You promised me Broadway was waiting for me" and is wrenched when she spits, "You scumbag, you maggot/ You cheap, lousy faggot/ Happy Christmas ya arse I pray God it's our last". Though the meaning of the chorus changes with every repetition the bombastic fanfare in its rise and fall gives me goosebumps. Every. Single. Time.
This is a carol that celebrates life in all facets, the high and the low. It revels in the stunning, whirlwind beauty of love and the piercing, gut-wrenching beauty of tragedy. The song isn't clean or innocent or full of child-like wonder like most associated with this time of year. Sure, those tunes are enjoyable in their own right. I've played in newly fallen snow, listened intently for the patter of hooves on my roof, and eaten chestnuts freshly-roasted on an open fire. No matter how heartwarming those memories are, however, I could go the rest of my life without hearing "Winter Wonderland" or "Frosty the Snowman". On the other hand I'd be surprised if I make it through the rest of today - or any day this month - without listening to, and being moved by, "A Fairytale of New York".