Fairytale of New York: A Comprehensive Analysis

My husband introduced me to Fairytale of New York maybe three or four years ago. He said, and still maintains today, that it is his favorite Christmas song.

At first, I was hesitant. I’ve always been a fan of the classics—chestnuts, roaring fires, Bing Crosby, etc. But when I heard Fairytale for the first time, immediately I saw why my husband liked it so much. With references to gambling, drinking and drug use, it’s definitely not your classic Christmas carol. And at the time my husband was not exactly a typical ooey-gooey Christmas guy.

Even though Fairytale is packed with a lot of abrasive emotions and bleak images, I have always thought of it as an anthem of hope, and not just because of the spirited Irish instrumental arrangement (though that does help quite a bit).

Let me take you through what I hear when I listen to Fairytale in New York, beat by beat.

It was Christmas Eve babe

In the drunk tank

An old man said to me, won’t see another one.

And then he sang a song

The Rare Old Mountain Dew

I turned my face away

And dreamed about you.

This is definitely a dark beginning. The hero of the song, if he can be called that, has been out drinking and rabblerousing, most likely alone and with such vigor that now he’s going to spend Christmas Eve in jail. His cellmate is a man so old that he is dying, most likely of an alcohol-related illness (according to the Wikipedia entry, “The Rare Old Mountain Dew” is a song that expounds on “the intoxicating properties of Irish moonshine”). Our hero falls asleep dreaming about his love, which is bittersweet in that he is thinking of her, but isn’t with her.

Got on a lucky one

Came in eighteen to one

I’ve got a feeling

This year’s for me and you.

So happy Christmas

I love you baby

I can see a better time

When all our dreams come true.

The first line of this verse refers to horse racing. Earlier in the evening, our hero placed a bet on a long shot and won 18 times his wager. The celebration of this victory is perhaps what led to his current incarceration.

The second half of this verse implies that he and his love have been going through some hard times lately, but he believes that this win is an omen of good things to come in the future.

They’ve got cars big as bars

They’ve got rivers of gold

But the wind goes right through you

It’s no place for the old.

When you first took my hand

On a cold Christmas Eve

You promised me

Broadway was waiting for me.

 

You were handsome

You were pretty

Queen of New York City

When the band finished playing

They howled out for more.

Sinatra was swinging,

All the drunks they were singing

We kissed on a corner

Then danced through the night.

The boys of the NYPD choir

Were singing “Galway Bay”

And the bells were ringing out

For Christmas day.

This group of two verses and what I would consider the chorus all refer to events that have taken place in the past. The first verse is sung by a women, the lover of the hero. The second verse and the chorus are sung together.

These lines describe their first meeting on Christmas Eve, probably shortly after the girl arrived in New York. They are both young, full hope and dazzled by the promise of the city, and they are absolutely certain they are meant for greatness (ie being a star on Broadway).

Even in this verse there is foreshadowing of misfortune, referring to how the city is “not a place for the old.” The mention of “Galway Bay” at this point in the song is also slightly ominous. According to the Wikipedia entry, “Galway Bay” is a song about an individual thinking on past days in Ireland, and how he hopes to someday return to Galway Bay, even if it is at the very end of his life or even in heaven. The words of Galway Bay give the impression that the singer’s current lot in life is not as good as it once was.

You’re a bum

You’re a punk

You’re an old slut on junk

Lying there almost dead on a drip in that bed.

You scumbag, you maggot

You cheap lousy faggot

Happy Christmas your arse

I pray God it’s our last.

The boys of the NYPD choir

Still singing “Galway Bay”

And the bells were ringing out

For Christmas day.

Flash forward several years to Christmas Eve day in the present year, maybe right before our hero goes out to bet on the ponies. The shine has worn off the city, and the young couple full of life and hope has been reduced to a bickering, frustrated pair that has succumbed to drugs and apathy. They are still together, but they are starting to wonder why.

However, the chorus returns with another round of “the NYPD choir/still singing Galway Bay”, which though previously a negative presence now gives a feeling not only of consistency, but a remembrance of better times and maybe even a promise of a better future, just as the singer of Galway Bay hopes for a better future as well.

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.

The boys of the NYPD choir

Still singing “Galway Bay”

And the bells are ringing out

For Christmas day.

If the song had ended without these last few stanzas, then it would be a vey bleak and semi-confused message indeed. But these final thoughts are ones of pure hope. Even though things have been bad, dreams have been broken and harsh words have been exchanged, our hero reaffirms his love by saying that he has not forgotten who he was or who she was when they first met. She may have lost her dreams, but he has kept them safe for her, along with his own. He won’t leave her because essentially he can’t make it without her—and after all they’ve been through together, I don’t think he would want to. The final refrain of the chorus is a triumphant declaration that the song continues to be sung, the sun rises again, and life goes on.

***

My husband and I got married this year. As we kissed, the upswell of Fairytale began, and we walked down the aisle together to the words of hope. It might seem strange to have your recessional song include the phrases “old slut” and “cheap lousy faggot,” but the more I think about it, the happier I am with our choice. Relationships are not always easy, and if you stick in one long enough there are going to be times when you fight. There may even be times when you hate each other. Fairytale is the story of a couple that has been together long enough that they have been through a dark time that almost destroyed them, and now they are about to come back into the light. What better way to illustrate that journey than by beginning the song on Christmas Eve, known traditionally to be the last dark night before the dawn of a new era, and ending it with the sun rising and the bells ringing on Christmas morning?

This year, I think this song takes on even more significance. 2014 has been a tumultuous year for me–and for the world at large. We have lost many beloved public figures. There has been a lot of political contention and social unrest. We have seen domestic shootings and international incidents, enough to last a lifetime. Personally, I have gone through more professional and emotional setbacks than I have in any one year previous. Looking at all of this in total, it is almost impossible to look forward with optimism. Perhaps that’s why Fairytale of New York seems more powerful than in years past, and perhaps it is why I feel compelled to share my interpretation with all of you now. Because this interpretation delivers a message that I (and maybe you too) desperately need to hear:

Don’t give up. Hold on to the love, the dreams, the hope–or even just the memories of them. Because it is going to get better, and when it does, you are going to want to have those things with you still.

For information on the production of Fairytale of New York, visit http://www.theguardian.com/music/2012/dec/06/fairytale-new-york-pogues-christmas-anthem

And MERRY CHRISTMAS (YOUR ARSE) ONE AND ALL!

 

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