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Christmas in New York.
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The deeply tragic tale behind a beloved Christmas anthem

Christmas songs and carols usually conjure up images of snow, Santa Claus, and general jolliness. But one of the greatest Christmas rock anthems involves none of those things. Instead, its a tale of a poor, down-on-their-luck—and heavily inebriated—Irish immigrant couple trying to make it in New York in the 1940s.

Fairytale of New York was released in 1987 by the Pogues, an Irish influenced, London-based folk-punk band. It was written by two band members, banjo-player Jem Finer and lead singer Shane MacGowan.

It was a hit, and its popularity has endured. In the UK, due to changes in chart measurement to incorporate streaming, it even stood a serious chance of capturing the coveted Christmas number one slot this year. It didn’t quite get there, finishing eleventh, but the song still regularly tops surveys in that country as the most beloved Christmas song.

That might seem strange, given its lyrical content.

Consider the seventh verse:

You’re a bum
You’re a punk
You’re an old slut on junk
Living there almost dead
On a drip in that bed

As Finer told the Guardian in 2012, on the 25th anniversary of the song’s release, it is basically about “this idea of a couple falling on hard times and coming eventually to some redemption.” That seems to resonate with people around this time of year.

One quirk is the reference during the chorus to the “boys of the NYPD choir.” There is no such thing, although the (traditionally heavily Irish American) NYPD does have a famous pipe band.

In any case, the story behind the song is arguably more dramatic than the tale outlined in the tune itself. It took two years and at least two producers too bring it to fruition. Kirsty MacColl, at the time married to the man who eventually produced it, Steve Lilywhite, was a surprise choice to sing the female vocal part, and ended up providing the defining qualities many think made it a hit. The song revived her flailing career, but MacColl died in a boating accident in Mexico in 2000.

MacGowan, meanwhile, has never been far from controversy, and has struggled with alcoholism and drug abuse. Concerns about his health continue to linger.

Perhaps the song serves as a reminder to keep your friends and family close these holidays.