One of the songs that marks Christmas for me is ‘Fairy Tale of New York’, with the Pogues and the wonderful Kirsty MacColl; if I ever wanted to be anyone but me, it was Kirsty. I remember asking my daddy why he couldn’t marry her because she would make a good mum – he laughed and said ‘she’s already taken little one’; seemed a good idea to me – fathers, let the tiniest obstacle get in the way
It’s an odd Christmas song, but it is a powerful one, because, in part it reflects a version of the immigrant experience which fails to make it into the Hollywood version. The two characters are Irish immigrants, not too long out of the ‘awld country’ – he still says ‘happy Christmas babe’ (an American would surely say “merry Christmas”? She still uses the English vulgarity “happy Christmas my arse” rather than the American “ass”. Their dreams have soured – he’s in the drunk tank on Christmas Eve, and she hopes it is their last time. There is a sadness, the sadness that accompanies the death of any relationship. But is it dead? One of the reasons – apart from powerful lyrics and a great performance, it still works, is that like all good fiction, it doesn’t tell you what you’d like to know – it leaves loose ends and inferences you could read any way you liked.
So, when he says ‘I could have been someone’, she says cynically. ‘well so could anyone’, but his reply to her claim that he took her dreams away is heartbreaking in its vulnerability – ‘I kept them with me babe, I put them with my own, can’t make it on my own, built them round you’. What a world there is in all of that, of young love frustrated, of ambition broken by circumstances, but also of the hope that springs eternal in the human heart – and the American dream.
Isn’t that what America is really about? That vision, that idea? Has there ever been a country founded on an idea of hope? Has there ever been such a hodge-podge of immigrants all battling and hoping, some falling, some rising, but however low you fall, always with the hope of rising? Is that why so many now feel a sense of despair – as though those times are gone?
I’m only a Welsh girl living far away, and probably, like Shane MacGowan, with a vision of America shaped by the movies, but I’d like to think that, just like the couple in the song, the fairy tale has a happy ending – and, of course, if it isn’t a happy ending, it isn’t the end yet.
For Christians, we are all ‘someone’ – beloved of God, in whose image we are made, and there is, in that, a reassurance. It is no accident – I think – that it was Christians from the West who had the vision and courage to create a great nation out of the wilderness they encountered. The ‘Shining city of a hill’ was their inspiration – and remains one for many Americans – however much secularists try to replace that dream with their own fairytales.
Good music and poetry (and good lyrics are poetry) have the power to transform things and to take us places in our imagination – and here, in a few short verses, we can see something profound about the immigrant – and the American experience – encapsulated. Either that, or I just have a vivid imagination – either way – something to share with all you wonderful people here at this season.