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Róisín Ingle: I’ve always been a sucker for a dark or sad song set around Christmas

A friend of mine stands by his thesis: A Fairytale of New York is not a Christmas song

A friend of mine nearly got cancelled a few years ago for stating a deeply-held opinion regarding a certain song that is hugely popular at this time of year. Ventilating this unpopular opinion on social media, where it was questioned and quote-tweeted by author Richard Osman who has more than a million followers, almost led to my friend being forced to change his identity and enter a witness protection programme. Still, he stands by his thesis to this day: A Fairytale of New York is not a Christmas song.

I can feel The Irish Times letter writers limbering up already. Alright, calm down, keep your Santa hat on – he meant that it was not a Christmas song in the traditional, schmaltzy sense. He meant that the song being so sublime it simply transcends the genre. Essentially my friend believes Fairytale has far too much artistic integrity to be a true Christmas song.

Bear with him for a minute. The masterpiece by Jem Finer and the late, great Shane MacGowan, a duet with the late, also great, Kirsty MacColl, has too much credibility to be featured on, say, a compilation album such as Now That’s What I Call Christmas. His argument is that it contains godlike-genius amounts of depth and heft and craft, and cannot therefore sit comfortably alongside traditional Christmas bangers such as Merry Christmas Everyone, Simply Having a Wonderful Christmas Time or Mistletoe & Wine.

Unusually, as this never happens on Twitter, my friend’s opinion was misunderstood and maligned and twisted, with people piling on and accusing him of not liking Fairytale or the Pogues, neither of which are true. If anything my friend is more devoted to the song and the band than the freezing-weather Fairytale fans. He views it as an album track – the song features on the Pogues album If I Should Fall From Grace with God – playing it in the car all year round, even in July. The way he sees it, and I find myself agreeing, a song like Fairytale is for life, not just for Christmas.


There are other tunes that come into this not-just-a-Christmas-song category. In her intro to River, Joni Mitchell may be riffing on Jingle Bells and singing about how it’s “coming on Christmas, they’re cutting down trees, they’re putting up reindeer and singing songs of joy and peace” but it’s definitely not a Christmas song. “I made my baby cry,” she sings devastatingly in a song dripping with heartache and regret and remembered lust. As for Tom Waits and his song Christmas Card from a Hooker In Minneapolis? Despite the Christmas card mentioned in the title the truth of it cannot be overstated: not a Christmas song.

I was reminded of my friend’s seasonal predicament when I was sent a playlist called Have Yourself a Desolate Little Christmas, a list of Christmas songs that lurched from the melancholic to the miserable to the downright profane. While initially dubious of the sender (thanks a lot there Mr Grinchy McGrinchface, go peddle your bah humbuggery somewhere else) I now realise this playlist was the early festive gift I never knew I needed.

I’ve always been a sucker for a dark or sad song set around Christmas. As a child one of my favourite Christmas songs was as desolate as they come. It begins with Nat King Cole singing the heartbreaking lyric “He’s the little boy that Santa Claus forgot, And goodness knows, he didn’t want a lot” and continues in a similar vein describing the same poor young fella on the street on Christmas morning who “envies all those lucky boys. Then wanders home to last year’s broken toys. I’m so sorry for that laddie. He hasn’t got a daddy. The little boy that Santa Claus forgot.”

Bad things happen at Christmas. The joy and cheer and fairy lights of this time of year brings the suffering of others – genocide, homelessness, poverty, abuse, illness – into even more shocking relief. And also this is the time of year when if things aren’t going well – a bad break-up, a shocking diagnosis, a bout of loneliness, depression – the constant merrymaking and much mistletoeing (yes I’m with Andy Williams on this, mistletoe is a verb, sue me) can be about as bearable as rotten egg nog.

For those of us dealing with serious life challenges at this time of year the good news is that songs of bad tidings are surprisingly plentiful and much more interesting than your average Christmas tune. The Desolate Little Christmas playlist threw up some gems: Sufjan Stevens with That Was The Worst Christmas Ever! Sample lyric: “Our father yells, throwing the gifts in the wood stove”.

Ireland is well represented on the Desolate Christmas playlist. There’s Arthur McBride which I never thought of as a Christmas song but fair play: “Oh, me and my cousin one Arthur McBride. As we went a-walking down by the seaside … For it being on Christmas morning”. Dunboyne’s CMAT and Junior Brother’s Uncomfortable Christmas features. “Oh and I didn’t wanna sit next to you, I hate this season of uncomfortable truths”.

A lot of the songs are by American artists with Christmas Eve Can Kill You by The Everly Brothers, a beautifully harmonious offering. Although, on hearing this one, my teenage daughter decided she’d had enough and took her geography homework into the television room, muttering about ringing Childline if I kept playing what she calls anti-Christmas songs.

As I write this Darlene Love is singing one of my favourite sad yuletide tunes Christmas (Baby Please Come Home): “If there was a way. I’d hold back this tear,” she’s singing from the kitchen speakers. If life is not a fairytale at the moment. If you find yourself needing to play the sad, not quite Christmassy songs, then blast them out loud. And let the tears flow.