The Story and Meaning Behind The Pogues’ Drunken Holiday Classic “Fairytale Of New York”

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

It was Christmas Eve babe / In the drunk tank sings The Pogues frontman Shane MacGowan, opening one of the most unexpected Christmas classics.

First released in 1987, “Fairytale Of New York,” recorded by Kirsty MacColl and The Pogues for the band’s third album If I Should Fall From Grace With God, sets a dimmer scene of a couple’s inebriated row on Christmas Eve.

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

Hard Times Meaning

More broadly, “Fairytale of New York” tells the story of a couple who have fallen on hard times around the holidays, according to MacGowan’s partner and biographer, Victoria Mary Clark.

“Really, the story could apply to any couple who went anywhere and found themselves down on their luck,” said Clark of the meaning of the song.

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

In the song, the man is an intoxicated gambler and the woman is a singer who also drinks too much, two characters MacGowan related to when writing the song.

 “The guy is a bum who is living on the street,” said MacGowan in a 2020 interview. “And he’s just won on a horse at the unlikely odds of 18-1, so you’re not even sure he is telling the truth. I identified with the man because I was a hustler, and I identified with the woman because I was a heavy drinker and a singer. I have been in hospitals on morphine drips, and I have been in drunk tanks on Christmas Eve.”

Elvis Costello

Elvis Costello first suggested MacGowan write a Christmas duet that he could sing with The Pogues’ then-bassist Cait O’Riordan—who later married Costello.

Written by MacGowan and founding Pogues member Jem Finer and set in its old Irish folk-punk arrangement with tin whistles, flutes, accordion, and a collection of instrumentation, “Fairytale Of New York” was originally started in 1985 and underwent a number of rewrites before it was ready two years later. Finer focused on the more uptempo portions of the song, while MacGowan wrote around the slower verses and chorus.

“Every night I used to have another bash at nailing the lyrics, but I knew they weren’t right,” said MacGowan. “It is by far the most complicated song that I have ever been involved in writing and performing. The beauty of it is that it sounds really simple.”

NYC

Sinatra was swinging and cars big as bars are imagined visions of more epoch days in New York, though MacGowan had never visited the city while writing the song but always dreamed of it. The Pogues finally made it to New York on tour in 1986.

“It was a hundred times more exciting in real life than we ever dreamed it could be,” shared MacGowan. “It was even more like New York than the movies.”

Finding Kirsty MacColl

Prior to the release of the band’s third album, If I Should Fall From Grace With God, O’Riordan left the Pogues, which put a halt in the completion of the song.

MacGowan later saw Irish singer Kristy MacColl on Top of the Pops and knew she would be perfect as his other half in “Fairytale.”

“I was madly in love with Kirsty from the first time I saw her on ‘Top of the Pops,'” revealed MacGowan. “She was a genius in her own right, and she was a better producer than he was. She could make a song her own, and she made ‘Fairytale’ her own.” 

J.P. Donleavy

At first, Costello suggested the band call the song “Christmas Eve in the Drunk Tank,” but MacGowan named it after a 1973 novel, Fairytale Of New York, by Irish-American author J.P. Donleavy.

Ill Verses

MacGowan said the lyrics and imagery in “Fairytale Of New York” initially came to him in a state of delirium during a bout with double pneumonia.

MacColl’s Death

Shortly after releasing her fifth album, Tropical Brainstorm, in 2000, MacColl was on vacation with her teenage sons and boyfriend in Cozumel, Mexico when she was struck and killed by a speeding power boat while she saving her son’s life. She was 41.

Since MacColl’s death, her part in “Fairytale Of New York” has been sung by everyone from Jem Finer’s daughter Ella, Sinéad O’Connor, Katie Melua, Cerys Matthews, and Victoria Clarke.

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 U.K. Legacy of “Fairytale Of New York”

“Fairytale Of New York” is the most played Christmas song during the holiday season in the U.K., and in December 2022 the song was certified quintuple platinum in the region. Despite being one of the most celebrated holiday songs in the U.K., “Fairytale Of New York” has still never reached the No. 1 spot on the charts since its original release. The song hit No. 3 in 2005 and No. 4 in 2019 on the British charts.

The boys of the NYPD choir
Still singing Galway Bay
And the bells are ringing out
For Christmas day

Photo by Brian Rasic/Getty Images

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