The thing about modern Christmas songs is that they're pretty damn treacly. The classics zero in on Jesus and sublime awe and all that shit. Listening to most newer Christmas songs, on the other hand, is like packing your cheeks with Werther's originals. Even the good ones are auditory Thomas Kinkade paintings, suggesting a cobblestoned, snow-dusted world filled with people who embrace their families, whom they love unceasingly, in big group hugs. This is not our world. Most Christmas music is warm but ultimately empty.
Not so with "Fairytale of New York," by the Pogues. I won't bore you with blow-by-blow color commentary on the lyrics, but I implore you to listen to the song and listen, really listen, to the lyrics:
Setting aside the overly literal video from the "Land Down Under" school of reenacting lyrics, there is more truth in one line of this song than in 20,000 covers of "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year" or whatever. Addiction, compulsion, codependence, resentment, disappointment, regret: it's all in there, but it's all lit by the still-burning sparks of hope and love. And it's a beautifully sketched, complete story! Most Christmas songs have absolutely nothing to say; this one says everything.
As someone with absolutely zero religious inclination, I wholeheartedly support the transformation of Christmas from a ceremony of cultish prostration before a ceramic baby into a celebration of family, charity, togetherness—of love. That's why "Fairytale of New York" is the perfect Christmas song. It tells of and celebrates love, real love, rather than a Hallmark Channel Original Movie approximation of it. The couple in the song snarl at each other, blame one another for their failures and disappointments, but in the end, they are defined and sustained by the story they share. In the end, love is all they have.
My wife introduced me to "Fairytale of New York" back when we were first dating, and more than any other, it is our Christmas song. And it's because it's more real and true and honest than any other Christmas song in existence. We're not abusive to or contemptuous of one another like the couple in the song. We're not codependent, we're not two people clinging to each other because we're all we've got. We married each other because we're in love, not because we'd be hopeless without each other. But all the same, I can certainly relate the depth and complexity of the relationship in "Fairytale of New York." It's about a shared lifetime of honest, sometimes explosive emotions, and I can make sense of that so much more clearly than I can a bunch of mawkish, dishonest pablum, which most new-ish Christmas songs are. Love, real love, is a beautiful thing, but it's also a three-dimensional thing, and even some of the best Christmas songs utterly miss that.
There's another video of "Fairytale of New York" that I almost used. I went with the one above because the lyrics are comprehensible, but this one's a live video, and the one to watch if you already know the song well. In it, Shane MacGowan forgets a couple lines, slurs others, misses the cue to come in with the final verse. It's abundantly clear that (even though it's still a good performance—he's not eating a hamburger off the floor or anything) he is incredibly fucked up. To me, that says it all. He knows he's a fuckup drunk, is self-aware about it to write entire songs about it, and still he goes on stage stumbling through the hits. The hope at the end of "Fairytale of New York" isn't an ending; it's part of everything else that came before it. That's life. That is a goddamn Christmas song.