Christmas Song for the Lost and Broken
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.
(From “Fairytale of New York” by Jeremy Finer and Shane MacGowan)
Christmas Eve in the drunk tank. (Read the rest of the lyrics, or better yet, watch the music video.) Could anything clash more completely with carols about “peace on earth,” “little Lord Jesus” and “joy to the world,” or even secular songs extolling “the most wonderful time of the year” than “Fairytale of New York,” the alcohol-infused memories of a lost soul whose dreams never came true? It may seem so, but actually, those carols don’t clash with this story, they complete it.
The 1987 hit “Fairytale,” written by Jeremy Finer and Shane MacGowan of The Pogues, and performed by MacGowan and the late Kirsty MacColl, has been among the Top 20 Christmas songs for years. In a Guardian article commemorating the song’s reissue on its 25th anniversary, music critic Dorian Lynskey offers, “It is loved because it feels more emotionally ‘real’ than the homesick sentimentality of ‘White Christmas.’”
Fairytale’s emotional truth comes in the snapshot recollections of MacGowan, and remembered conversations between him and MacColl. The drunken MacGowan can’t even dream of the past in peace, as do narrators in other, more refined songs. His memories must compete, perhaps appropriately, with his aging cellmate singing about Irish moonshine.
Past and present run together in Fairytale. But not only is future happiness uncertain, any future is uncertain, if the narrator continues his destructive lifestyle. The best days were full of romance and excitement, in which MacColl remembers how handsome he was, and MacGowan returns, “You were pretty. Queen of New York City.” But then, with little transition, angry, hurtful insults are hurled at each other with as much energy as they had previously used for dancing through the night. Both are on a downward spiral. His accompanied by booze, hers with heroin, landing her “almost dead” and on a morphine drip.
What is probably the most vulnerable moment in the song, and makes Lynskey declares that Fairytale’s “brilliance is sealed by its final verse,” is when MacColl accuses MacGowan of taking her dreams from her. Rather than deny it or accuse her in return, MacGowan responds, “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.”
What makes Fairytale resonate with so many of us is that even if we have not struggled in the same manner as MacGowan and MacColl, we probably know someone who has experienced these struggles. We may love someone who has. And if we are honest, we understand that all of us are lost and broken — just that with some, the lostness and brokenness are more visible than with others. That is what Christmas is all about. God Himself, the One who has “risen with healing in His wings,” has come to our world to find all the lost and heal all the broken.
And that is what I wish the lost MacGowans and MacColls, and all those who can relate more to “Fairytale of New York” than the message of the Christmas carols would come to understand. That there is a reality in those carols that is even more real than “emotional” real-ness, and it is the reality of “the Word that became flesh and dwelt among us.”
I wish they could know that the God who was born as a baby in Bethlehem wants to “be born in us today.”I want them to know that in Christ, “God and sinners” are reconciled, that He brings “light and life,” and that He was born so that “man no more may die,” — even old drunks singing about drinking even more booze before they die. I pray that they will know that He is the One that “with His blood mankind has bought” and that they would know “God’s wondrous love in saving lost mankind!”
I listen to “Fairytale of New York” every Christmas. Admittedly, I really like The Pogues! But even if I didn’t, I would want to know this song, I want to remember and pray for those who have discovered that they are lost and broken, but have not yet discovered the One who knows their dreams, who loves them, and whose life can be traced from “a poor manger to a bitter Cross” where He died to save them.